Posted by: Singh Is King | Thursday, September 13, 2007

Border farmers oppose Wagah cargo terminal

ImageALONG INTERNATIONAL BORDER BETWEEN PUNJAB AND PAKISTAN: Sixty long years after colonial British India was partitioned into Pakistan and India, the two independent nations are preparing to take their minuscule mutual trade several notches up by allowing trucks to cross the frustrating “zero line” that separates Lahore and Amritsar at the Wagah Border.Belated as it is, the decision has been hailed as “landmark” by traders in both countries as well as an increasing population of peaceniks, who hope the trans-border truck lines beginning October 1 will eventually herald free access for common Indians and Pakistanis.

But amidst the euphoria that has already begun to express itself in even more wildly cheering crowds at Wagah’s sunset retreat parade, a small group of Punjabi farmers, less than a kilometre from the ceremonial border post in Roranwala Khurd, is not happy at all, reported The Asian Age recently.

70-year-old Shabeg Singh Dhillon has been practically cut off from 30 highly fertile acres of his ancestral land holding for more than 15 years. “The government built a security fence in the early 1990’s and ever since then we are permitted only partial access to our farms on the other side,” he said.

Meant to block smuggling and discourage cross border movement of Khalistani terrorists, the electrified security fence which is zealously guarded by Border Security Force personnel, has drastically reduced the already meagre farm incomes. This is because both sides of the India-Pakistan Border in Punjab are cultivated to the last inch. But because of limited access to their farms on the “other side”, Indian farmers can at best grow a single crop.

“In the best of times we are permitted only four to five working hours and that too on crops no more than three feet tall,” says Hardev Singh, whose cumulative losses per acre run into several lakhs.

Border farmers like Shabeg Singh and Hardev Singh say the government’s plans to construct a huge land cargo terminal to facilitate truck traffic through Wagah has virtually sounded the death knell for them.

The Asian Age report said that 132 acres of fertile farmland belonging to Roranwala and Attari farmers has been notified for acquisition for the cargo terminal. And the government has offered what it believes is generous compensation of Rs 45 Lakhs per acre for land fringing the national highway, Rs 25 lakhs a little distant from the road and Rs 20 lakhs for acres that are more remote.

But these rates have been set only for land on the Indian side of the security fence. The authorities in their decidedly curious wisdom have decided that all farmland across the fence will be acquired at a depreciated price of Rs 20 lakhs per acre.

“There were no price categories before the fence came up. The government first builds a fence and ensures that our incomes are severely squeezed for years and now wants to tell us that the farms on the other side are worth less money!” said a very angry Shabeg Singh. “Will someone knock it into their heads that land beyond the fence is less productive only because the BSF won’t let us cultivate it properly?”

The old farmer and several of his neighbours, also affected by the proposed acquisition for the Wagah cargo terminal, say they will fight for fair compensation. They insist that the cargo terminal is essentially a commercial venture and all land acquired for it must be paid for fully at the prevailing market price.

An International Monetary Fund report estimates that India-Pakistan trade could cross $6 billion annually if basic trade relations and infrastructure are strengthened. Much of this will be routed through the proposed trade corridor at Wagah, which will come up on cheaply acquired farmland.

The euphoria amongst bureaucrats and the traders of Amritsar’s traditional export market at the old Majith Mandi is clearly not shared by the beleaguered farmers of Roranwala Khurd. “Both countries and their trading communities stand to earn billions. Surely they must also give us what its rightfully ours?” said Shamsher Singh supported in a virtually chorus by Shabeg, Hardev, Sardul and other farmer friends. “People who come to see the parade at Wagah say relations between India and Pakistan are getting better but it’s not changed for us. When I stand staring at my farm beyond this menacing fence, I don’t feel India is an independent country,” said Hardev Singh waiting to go across and water his paddy fields when and if the gates open to let him through.

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