Following New Delhi’s decision to scrap the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 and its subsequent conversion into a union territory, the J&K administration has stepped up efforts to create “land banks” for investors from outside Kashmir Valley.

Over 7% of government-owned land in the valley has already been identified for this purpose: 15,000 acres out of 203,020. Most of the plots identified are in the floodplains of or adjacent to rivers, streams and wetlands.

Information on the availability of government-owned land in the 10 districts of the Kashmir Valley has been compiled in recent months. They show a total of 1,624,162 Kanals (203,020 acres). The Kanal is a local unit of land area. Not all of this is fit for development or for supporting infrastructure.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior official in the J&K revenue department told thethirdpole.net that the process of identifying the land that can be developed is ongoing, and over 120,000 Kanals (15,000 acres) have been identified as fit for infrastructure development. “Our government is identifying large patches of land for inviting investors to set up industries in Jammu and Kashmir,” the official said.

Most of the government-owned land that has been identified lies adjacent to rivers, streams and wetlands, the official said. “In the coming weeks, more land will be identified. A lot of developable land has been encroached upon by people.”

In Kupwara district, around 45,000 Kanals out of 1,36,357 (5,625 acres out of 17,004) of government-owned land has been encroached upon, he added. “In all the districts, parts of government land has been encroached upon and the option of taking the encroached land back from encroachers is also being explored. The government is seriously pursuing the creation of land-banks. This can be gauged from the fact that five meetings, wherein top-level officials participated, were held in the past seven days only.”

According to him, the government is looking for chunks of developable land owned by it in various districts with plots ranging from at least two acres to over 11 acres. Land is quite scarce in Kashmir, especially in Srinagar and other towns.

The Narkara wetland near Srinagar [image by: Athar Parvaiz]

This reporter saw a recent government land-transfer order of three acres from the agricultural department, for the purpose of infrastructure development. On this plot, the agricultural department had just finished spending INR 6,000,000 (USD 85,714) on construction of five high-tech greenhouses for the Regional Science Centre. The official documents seen by this reporter said that on an average, the department would sell over a million (mostly hybrid) seedlings annually from this plot to vegetable farmers of Srinagar and adjacent districts. The installation of five high-tech greenhouses would hugely improve both quality and quantity of the seedlings, an expert in the department said.

Some officials said since 2016, the agriculture department had resisted the transfer of this plot out of its jurisdiction, but could not do so after the state was turned into a union territory.

“This land has served Kashmir’s farmers, who get different vegetable seedlings (particularly hybrid seedlings) from there, for years. In fact the farm and kitchen garden revolution in Kashmir was possible because of this prime land on the banks of the Jhelum,” said an officer of the agriculture department who requested anonymity. “We had offered them alternative land. But they were hell-bent on this land,” he added.

When asked to react to this development, the director of Kashmir’s agriculture department Aijaz Andrabi said the government is authorised to do “whatever it wants to do with its land.”

On November 12, the Pune edition of the Sakal Times newspaper quoted the deputy commissioner of J&K’s Doda district, Sagar Doifode, as saying, “Several investors from Maharashtra as well as from other parts of the country are keen on investing in Jammu & Kashmir.” He added that it had become possible only after the abrogation of Article 370. Doifode also told the newspaper, “However, to attract investors, we need successful implementation of land bank.”

No special status any more

The issue gets mixed up with the Indian parliament passing the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Act, due to which the erstwhile state has lost its special status. A part of that now-abolished special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution had been the right to pass its own laws on many issues, including who could buy land and the protection of the environment. Those laws used to supersede federal laws. Not any more. This worries many residents, who feel they will be swamped by big business groups from other states. Other residents worry about the impact of infrastructure projects on the environment.

Talking about the identification of plots for investors, prominent legal expert Zafar Ahmad Shah told thethirdpole.net, “This is not only about environment. There are central environmental laws which are now applicable. Whatever protection is [available] under those laws, they are supposed to provide that protection. But what is really important is the fact that our power of taking our own decisions has been taken away from us in the form of scrapping of Article 370.”

Member of Parliament from Anantnag in Kashmir, Hasnain Masoodi, has similar views. “Yes, people do have apprehensions that there can be huge repercussions of the intended development spree though there are laws which seemingly can take care of those concerns. But the big question for us is within whose jurisdiction the law-making falls – environmental or other laws. Our contention is that we used to make the laws ourselves; why has that right been snatched from us?”

Local businessmen feel that business units owned by locals in Kashmir’s mountain resorts such as Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg may soon be overshadowed and outsized by big business groups from other parts of India, and these resorts may “suffer much worse environmental destruction than they have already faced. They refer to recent news about allotment of land in Pahalgam to the Maharashtra state government and reports about some big business groups having expressed their interest to set up businesses in Kashmir.

“Some decisions taken by the government-appointed committees recently on environmental clearances to projects in forested areas suggest that the government is not averse to relaxing the norms meant for environmental protection. We have also learnt through reliable sources that four more cement factories have been allowed to operate in Khunmoo adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary. It is sounds quite scary,” said an environmental activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Raja Muzaffar, prominent right to information activist and environmental campaigner is apprehensive that the central government’s Right to Fair Compensation Land Acquisition Act (now applicable in J&K) may lead farmers to sell off their farms. “The greed of earning money quite easily will be attractive to them, especially when farmers are not that interested in farming.”

But even in this there is a twist in the tale. The farmers would not receive compensation under Central laws, which would have been much higher. Their land was acquired months before the revocation of former state laws in Kashmir but they have received nothing yet.

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