Powerful poverty and ineffective social protection systems
A case study of Nengroo Basti
MAhmad Gandhi in one of his last notes while expressing deep social thoughts said:
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when self becomes too important to you, apply the following test. Recalls the face of the poorest and weakest man [woman] you may have seen, and ask yourself if the move you are considering is going to help them [her]. Will he [she] gain something? Will it restore it [her] to control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the millions of hungry and spiritually hungry people? Then you will find your doubts and you will melt away”
There is another important saying of Gandhi Ji in which he asks the authorities at the stand “to make decisions bearing in mind that the last man standing in the row benefits”. India celebrates 75 years of independence this year, will the last man in line benefit?
Central and state governments announce several social protection schemes and programs to benefit the poor each year, but how many of these schemes actually reach the bottom of the pyramid? How many poor and disadvantaged communities benefit? Is the administration really serious about solving the problems of people living in remote corners of India?
Nengroo Basti case study
Over the past few months, together with my team, I have highlighted the problems faced by people living in a small hamlet known as Nengroo Basti Darwan located in a remote corner of the Charar e Sharief area of the district of Budgam. Extensive field research and several visits to this area have led me to believe that poverty and illiteracy are a major factor in underdevelopment and that government social services are not reaching these voiceless people either. Authorities at the helm, especially government officials, also take these people for granted. In November last year I went to this area with friends. There is practically no registration number in this hamlet. All households in Nengroo Basti live below the poverty line (BPL) and are mostly landless. People earn their living by working on construction sites in the local town of Charar Sharief or in the surrounding apple farms. In the past, many also smuggled timber, but this has stopped now.
We owe it to Darwan to highlight the problems related to the non-completion of road projects undertaken by PM Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY). Along the way, I saw a small hamlet in the middle of a valley with no other people around. The houses were small and ordinary. Coming back from Darwan, we climb uphill towards the hamlet located about a hundred meters from the main road. As I entered the small village, I discovered that it had been fenced off on all sides and looked like a small prison. Local residents were mostly illiterate and poor. They looked like a primitive tribal group. I met a certain Akram Nengroo, he told me that the forest agents had fenced their whole house. I was told that the forest department does not even allow them to bury their relatives on forest land. In the past year, residents have buried two people in a Masjid.
The 15 families who live in Nengroo Basti did not encroach on this land but were moved to the area by the state government 14 years ago after landslides destroyed their own village in Sani Darwan. As part of a rehabilitation program, they were resettled in the area by the National Conference government in 2007 and were also given 7 marla plots (1905 sq ft) each. The same area of land has been allocated for a mosque and a government school. But the government did not allocate land for the cemetery to them.
The people of Nengroo Basti are forest dwellers as many communities such as Gujjars, Bakerwals and others are traditional tribes living in the forest. Their way of life had remained reasonably intact for centuries. But since October 31, 2019, when the Union Government extended to J&K the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, progressive legislation that secures land tenure, food security and livelihoods for traditional inhabitants forests, the majority of communities like that of the Nengroos were actually treated harder than they had ever been treated before.
The forestry officers fenced off the whole house. The locals are not even allowed to bury our relatives here. The 15 families who live in Nengroo Basti did not encroach on this land but were moved there by the state government 14 years ago after landslides destroyed their ancestral village about 2 km away. Why did the government provide these people with land for a cemetery? People like Akram Nungroo grew up in these forests and today they are called invaders and the whole habitation is fenced off and converted into an unregistered prison.
In January 2021, when a public outcry to implement the Forest Rights Act -FRA at J&K ensured that the legislation was finally put into effect, the people of Nengroo Basti rejoiced, as did many other communities in forest dwellers. The government told them on radio and television that the FRA would give them several rights, including the right to have a cemetery in the village and the right to acquire land for a school and a health centre. But that seems like a distant dream for the people of this remote place. These people used to use land to bury the dead for the past 10 years or so, but after the FRA, this practice was stopped by the government (Forestry Department). Not only has the deployment of the FRA failed to provide nomadic communities with the benefits promised by law, but its extension to J&K has actually made life more difficult for them as staff from the Union Territory Forestry Department seem feel that the legislation challenges their authority. . I have made several videos about this issue and also highlighted it in social media. A delegation of social activists, including myself, also participated with MP Mohammad Akbar Lone. He wrote a detailed letter to the Minister of Tribal Affairs of the Government of India.
The idea of writing this article is not to shed light on the problems faced by the poor inhabitants of Nengroo Basti, but I try to shed light on a different problem which is related to official indifference and the negligent attitude of state authorities towards disadvantaged groups who are poor. and illiterate. Thus poverty and illiteracy hinder the social and economic development of a region inhabited by such people.
I have been to Nengroo Colony several times after my November visit. I also took an NGO Kashmir Welfare Trust (KWT) there towards the end of December and they distributed lots of food packets, rations and other winter essentials.
On January 28, we again went to Nengroo Basti. I asked some doctor friends to come with me. We took a lot of medicine with us. Members of KWT also joined. They brought food packets, rations and warm blankets with them in a truck. After reaching the area, we couldn’t stray from the main road as the connecting road uphill to Nengroo Basti was not cleared of snow. The area had witnessed huge snowfalls of around 3 ½ feet on January 7 and 8 and until January 28 had not been cleared? We couldn’t go up and had to take our medicine boxes with us. The locals helped us. Food materials, rations and blankets were distributed on the main road.
Leaving Nengroo Basti, the saying of Gandhi Ji came to mind. Is the last man standing in line not benefiting from government welfare programs at all? The people of Nengroo settlement were first deprived of a cemetery which was their rightful right and snow was also not cleared from their link road when all roads and link roads in Kashmir were released by the government? For the past 14 years, I have been told that the government has never cleared Nengroo Basti. I want to ask the government why this indifferent attitude with these basti walas? As celebrations called Azadi ka Amrit Mahautsav have been taking place since last year, how can the government deprive poor and disadvantaged people of their basic rights even after 75 years of independence? Isn’t it a mockery of this theme when agents of a welfare state deny even basic services like snow removal from their roads to a particular community, just because they are poor, illiterate and voiceless?
The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the editorial position of Kashmir Observer
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