February 2006 News

Tangdhar's elites fight to protect their position

12 February 2006
The Hindu
Praveen Swami

Dringla: Soha Abbas remembers life before the great Kashmir earthquake forced her affluent family out of their magnificent traditional home into a two-room corrugated iron shed. Inside the old house, there were carpeted floors and tiled bathrooms. In the shed, though, it is always either too hot or too cold. The earthquake did more than level homes; it also flattened the class and caste structures of the Tangdhar ranges. Compensation and aid have given more to the region's poor than they have ever received before. Tangdhar's richer residents, though, have found that regaining their status and prosperity will need hard political lobbying. As emergency relief work gives way to long-term rehabilitation, Tangdhar's traditional elites walnut traders, road and public-works contractors, and shopkeepers are pushing hard for relief that will allow them to salvage as much as possible from the ruins. Demands for tax breaks, loan write-offs and amendment of laws that forbid compensation for multiple properties are growing. Class conflict Like everywhere else in India, caste and class are closely linked in the Tangdhar ranges. Elite Muslim castes such as the Mugals and Syeds, whose villages are often located on the best agricultural land or along the main roads, cornered a disproportionate share of State development aid. Lower-caste Gujjars and Bakkarwals, who make up about a third of the population, had relatively poor access to educational and development infrastructure. Since the earthquake, though, reconstruction assistance has poured in, threatening well- established hierarchies. Last month, for example, the State Government halted work on a road linking Parada with the Gujjar and Bakkarwal-dominated Amroi, one of the most remote villages in the region. Contractors from Parada forced the work to stop on the ground that it should have benefited a local resident, not an ethnic- Kashmiri outsider. The decision ensured that Amroi residents remained economically dependent on the rich of Parada, who own the stores from which they must buy supplies and the mules used to haul them up the mountainsides. Hiring a mule to carry a 20 kg load up the mountains costs Rs. 100 on top of the steep premiums shops in Parada place on Tangdhar prices. Getting supplies to their homes, therefore, costs the poor that much more. Mohammad Yasin, the sarpanch of Parada, dismisses Amroi's complaints of caste subjugation, but does provide an insight into the motives he and other local contractors had for blocking work on the road. 'I lost a shop and goods worth Rs. 10 lakh,' he claims, 'and have yet to receive my insurance claim. I have to pay back loans for the goods, and can't afford to lose the little business I have right now.' To mitigate their losses, local businessmen are asking for a six-month break on taxes, and a loan repayment moratorium. Others want the Government to underwrite the costs of reconstructing shops, and the payment of compensation based on the value of lost properties, rather than a fixed Rs. 1,35,000 grant. 'The Government should also make labour available to us at affordable rates,' says Chanapora sarpanch Syed Ghazi Shah. Tangdhar businessmen point to their losses in the defence of these claims. Walnut contractors, for example, send out over 500 trucks of shelled kernels each October. Last year, though, part of the harvest was destroyed. Prices for giri, the walnut kernel, doubled a blessing for the Kupwara, Srinagar and Jammu-based dealers but useless to local businessmen, who contract to sell their produce at fixed prices. Making sure local elites do not end up cornering a disproportionate share of long-term relief, it seems, will be one of the major challenges before the process of reconstruction.


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