Shopian, India-administered Kashmir – Golam Mohammad Mir,, looks desperately at the 2-year-old canal that usually brings water year after year to his and many other orchards in the Shopian district of Indian-administered Kashmir, home to some of the best apples in the Himalayan foothills.
Mir has a reason for anger. The canal is dry on this day, which is interrupted at the beginning of the apple season when farmers prepare trees with minerals and fertilizers.
Mir pointed to the delayed canal and lamented to Moria, “It’s time to give the trees their first shower (minerals and pesticides), but no water.” “It will prove costly, because losing one spray (in about a dozen of the proposed ones) can ruin the whole crop.”
Agriculture is the backbone of the region’s economy, contributing 6 percent to its GDP. A survey found that at least, 000,000,000 Kashmiri families are directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.
Last year, about two million tonnes of apples were harvested in India-administered Kashmir, two-thirds of which were exported to the Indian market.
Shopian is the second largest district in the region, with a cultivable area of only 312 sq km (1947 sq mi). Nevertheless, it reported the third-highest yield of apples and the second-highest yield of cherries in 201-201-201, making it the “apple capital” of Indian-administered Kashmir, according to the government’s agriculture department.
Illegal excavation of the river
In 2012, India abolished the semi-autonomy of the region, and as the rules changed, external players flooded the region, leading to catastrophes for farmers.
Shopian’s apple-rich belts are shrinking, many irrigation canals and water channels are drying up due to illegal and uninterrupted digging of the river.
Mohammad Yusuf Wagai, another farmer from Odura village, said there were allegations of water shortages in about three dozen villages in Shopian.
“Twelve grams and dozens of tigers have been eaten in the Salar water stream, but it is drying up. When we raised the issue with the administration, we were told to shut up and threaten to file a police case, ”he said.
Spring melt in the snow-capped Pir Panjal Mountains in the Himalayas, washing away the tributaries of the Rambi Ara, Romshi and Bisher tributaries in south Kashmir, before flowing into the Jhilam River in the Indus River system of South Asia.
Rich in exotic snow trout and mineral resources, the “Three Sisters” irrigate thousands of traditional apple and cherry orchards scattered along their flood-prone shores, making thousands of livelihoods.
A study by the Government of India conducted by the Central Power and Research Center, Pune, has warned against mining in the Jhilam River or its tributaries.
However, in February last year, when the local government started the auction for the mine, despite environmental concerns, the “three sisters” were identified by the government as part of the stockpile.
222 “Blocks” – Areas marked for mining activities – The first step in the auction process was taken by the government in 1999. Accordingly, mining plans for 180 regions were approved.
According to official documents, I was given environmental clearance for only 13 blocks in Kulgam and Kupwara districts.
However, locals in Shopian on the Rambi Ara tributary have complained that mining has already started for contractors whose plans have been approved but are awaiting environmental clearance.
Within a year of continuous excavation, they said, the tributary’s ecosystem had been vandalized and its watershed damaged.
‘River resembles a battlefield at night’
Government sources said the roads were identified as a “priority area” by the administration to show “transformation” into infrastructural land after the region’s special status was eroded and it was transformed into a federal territory under the direct control of New Delhi.
“Roads are being built three times faster than before. Efforts are underway to complete the power and water projects that have been pending for years, ”said Manoj Sinha, the lieutenant governor of the disputed region, earlier this month.
A government source told Al Jazeera that most of the stone and sand used to build and repair roads across south and central Kashmir came from Rambi Ara, Romshi and the world, and the government “has turned a blind eye to this deliberate vandalism. Environment “.
“I understand what is happening. We also feel that we cannot stand in the way of any government-sponsored project, ”an official with the region’s Geology and Excavation Department said on condition of anonymity.
During the day the locals can be seen on the Rambi Ara tributary with their shovels and tractors. When darkness falls, non-local contractors use heavy machinery to combine sand and other minerals, dumping them deeper into the river.
Golam Qadir Bhat, a resident of Odura village and head of the local village council in Shopian, said, “The river looks like a battlefield at night. “The sound of heavy earthworms kept us awake all night.”
Most of the locals got mining contracts in about 40 blocks of Rambi Ara.
Kashmiri contractors, who use local labor and carry out manual excavations, could not participate in the bidding due to internet outages – a barrier to India’s security and communications after the region’s special status was degraded.
“The bid process was invalid. About 75 per cent of the contracts were made by non-locals who snatched the livelihoods of thousands of workers in the belt, “said Tariq Ahmed, head of the local union of Shopian workers.
‘Our family will starve’
Bhat said the excavation had falsified the natural course of the river, and the irrigation canal had dried up.
“Odura is the poorest village of farmers,” Mir said. “Our survival depends on our gardens. If our trees are starving in the water, our families will also be starving.
Water scarcity has caused a flow of concern among ordinary residents as well as farmers and forced them to delay spraying their crops, which could prove detrimental.
“This river provides livelihood to hundreds of families. Where are we going? How do we sustain our family? Abdul Rahim Mir, a resident of Mispora village in Shopian.
The Rambi Ara River is not only for fruit growers, but also for the young, unemployed men who make a living, who used to manually extract stones and sand from the river for daily wages. Many bought tractors on bank loans to help with transportation.
Shoket Kazi, a tractor owner and resident of the Shadab Kareva area of Shopian, said about 200 drivers have lost their jobs since the mining contract was handed over to locals.
“Many tractor owners have bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Some people took bank loans to buy tractors but the excavations by the locals ruined their livelihood. ”
‘Extensive daylight looting’
Section 4.3 of the Jammu and Kashmir Department of Prevention of Mineral Mineral Concessions, Storage, Mineral Transport and Prevention of Illegal Minerals Regulations 2016 prohibits mining “3 meters or below the water level depth, whichever is less”.
However, the excavation of the mine by heavy machinery has created a deep and wide atmosphere in the Rambi Ara which threatens a large power transmission tower built over the river.
“The water that was given to our garden is now flowing under the big rocks that have been cut off by the machines. Unplanned mining has made it difficult to reach the main river now, ”said Abdul Rashid, a farmer from Odura village.
According to India’s National Water Policy 2012, “availability of water in different regions and among different people in the same region” and “unreliable water supply system” have the potential to “create social unrest”.
“This is a massive looting of our resources,” said Bhat, head of the village council.
“After repealing Article 370, Modi (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) promised ‘Sabak Saath, Sabak’ika’ (unity and progress for all). But instead of giving jobs, unemployment has only increased. Now our primary livelihood is being taken away from us, ”he added.
‘We have to sell our land’
Many farmers in Shopian, the epicenter of insurgent activity, say they see an ironic pattern in the way mining is done, after New Delhi relaxed rules and allowed non-Kashmiris to own land in the disputed area.
One farmer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “This is a deliberate attack on our livelihood.” The government wants to destroy our gardens and force us to sell our land. They want us to beg. ”
The Jammu and Kashmir Territorial Mining Act states that the licensee must act as an appropriate, skilled and efficient person to protect and safeguard the minerals and workers and the surrounding environment.
But villagers complained that contractors were not concerned about “safety in the neighborhood”.
Sachin Kumar Vaishya, deputy commissioner of Shopian, told Al Jazeera that there was no “clarity” about the people involved in the Rambi Ara mine.
“The situation is not good. We seized several cars. I am seeking a report from the Irrigation and other concerned departments in this regard. ”
“We need to strike a balance between development and environmental protection.”
The statistics are alarming. In 2018, the government’s geology department filed three lawsuits involving illegal mining in Shopian. Last year, 63 such cases were filed.
In the adjoining Pulwama district these figures stand at 46 and 317, respectively. In 2019, 476 cases were registered in 10 districts of Kashmir which increased to 2067 cases last year.
An official from the Department of Geography and Mining, who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera, “If there is a 400 percent jump in illegal mining, you can imagine the real situation on the ground.
Vaishya said mining contracts have not yet been awarded. “We are finding a way for them (locals) to make a living and at the same time ensure the protection of the river environment. I met the locals. We will come out with a roadmap. ”
But villagers say the government may not know what is going on given the way the excavations have been carried out.
“I have four to six people. Whenever I get information about illegal mining, we try to stop it. “We can’t go out at night because of the militants,” Majid Qazi, the district mining officer in Shopian, told Al Jazeera.
“We have filed many cases against illegal miners. I was the first officer to suggest the use of public safety laws against them, ”he said.
For fruit growers, however, these are desperate times.
Earlier this month, Golam Mohammad Shah, a resident of Odura village, found a heavy machine while working dangerously in the Rambi area near the river bank.
“When I objected, they complained to the district administration and the officials called me. I was released after the intervention of some locals. ”