Srinagar: In Mehjoor Nagar locality, a suburb in Srinagar city, Fayaz Ahmad stands in the middle of a scrap yard days after it was bulldozed during an eviction drive. It has been thirty years since Ahmad – now 52 – has worked here.
Fayaz is one of the six scrap yard owners where more than 200 labourers, including 150 non-locals from Bihar, gather scrap daily throughout the city. On Saturday, a bulldozer demolished the makeshift boundary wall, and the workers were asked to evacuate the premises.
Since then, the workers have been apprehensive about losing their livelihood amidst the ongoing drive by the authorities. The move has been widely condemned across Jammu and Kashmir, including by all the regional political parties.
“We earned livelihood for decades here. We have grown older working on collecting and selling scrap. There is no employment or future for us except in this junkyard,” Ahmad told NewsClick.
He points towards a huge pile of scrap that has been collected recently. Heaps of junk metal, plastic and cardboard have been overturned inside the yard. Over a dozen carts lie around, and workers try to salvage tin sheets removed during the demolition. This is the only place in the locality where the fresh demolition drive was conducted.
Like Ahmad, many of the labourers from Bihar have been earning their livelihood here for nearly three decades. Many of them work and also live in those makeshift sheds to save more money.
The authorities claimed that the land was under “illegal encroachment” but Sameer Dar, another scrap dealer, said that they had rented the space and did not receive any prior notice before the demolition was carried out.
“We are not big businessmen who have grabbed hundreds of kanals. There are more than 200 families dependent on this piece of land, which is not even more than 2 kanals. If they snatch it from us, there will be no option left for us,” Dar said.
The drive began in January after the UT administration issued an order dated January 9 directing all local administrative officials to remove “encroachment” on State Land, including Roshni and Kahcharai (Grazing) land. Since then, the administration, led by the Revenue Department, and Tehsil-level officers are assisted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police to carry out such drives.
The directive triggered a row, with many terming it a draconian move that would render lakhs of people homeless and affect the livelihood of even more. Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha assured that the order was to recover land from the possession of big sharks and land mafia and would exclude those who are poor and marginalised. However, on the ground, it was not followed while carrying out the demolitions.
“The eviction drive has created fear and anger among people. With authorities running earthmovers everywhere, the claims of the administration about not touching ordinary people have proven to be a farce. There is a complete disconnect between what administration says and what it does,” senior politician M Y Tarigami said.
All the political parties, including the National Conference, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (JKPC), Apni Party, and Democratic Azad Party (DAP), have led protests against the move and urged the authorities to halt the exercise.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s local leadership have also said that the poor and marginalised should be spared from the drive. But the officials carrying out these demolitions have claimed that they have not received any order in this regard.
On Tuesday, many, like Altaf Bukhari of Apni Party – often seen as a BJP ally – condemned the showcasing of bulldozers as a “symbol of power” in J&K during a party rally in Udhampur district.
“The land, which is being snatched from the people, actually belongs to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. We will not allow outsiders to grab the land,” he said.
Since the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 A on August 5, 2019, the BJP-led government has made momentous changes in the land laws in the region, triggering fears of alleged “demographic change” by settling outsiders in the only Muslim-majority state of the country. Militant outfits also used this to launch a fresh wave of targeted attacks in which many non-locals were killed. The government has vehemently opposed these claims and said that all the changes were made to benefit the locals.
Earlier this week, an unverified statement from The Resistance Front – an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) — appeared on social media networks threatening the officials and workers of the revenue department and those involved in the drive with dire consequences. The target put by the militant outfit has furthered the fear in the residents.
Protests have also been reported from the Jammu division, where at least eight persons, including a District Development Council (DDC) official, were arrested by police for allegedly participating in stone-pelting against the demolition squad in Malik market.
On Wednesday, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti was detained by the police after she held a protest at Vijay Chowk, outside the Parliament in New Delhi, against the ongoing drive that she said was “turning Jammu and Kashmir into Afghanistan”. Mufti has earlier urged all national Opposition leaders to raise the issue of state-led demolitions across J&K against its own people in the garb for ‘reclaiming state land’ from ‘encroachers’.
Back in Srinagar, Ahmad and Dar are still trying to recover from the demolition carried out a few days back. “If the government does not support us, we will be forced to streets. We will sit on a dharna,” Dar said.