Highway Hangover

The existence of Baglihar Power Project consumed its namesake village forever not before giving name, fame and prosperity to Chanderkote. Fifteen years after the ‘change’ swept over, Bilal Handoo visits the area to report the twin-paradox

Highway patch that houses Chanderkote, the hamlet which is a town now.

Highway patch that houses Chanderkote, the hamlet which is a town now.

CHANDERKOTE, Ramban – This highway village on the left bank of River Chenab had only a few tea stalls before the big boom took place and flipped its facade forever. That was fifteen years ago, when primitive times were still visible in the village, nestled 7kms from district headquarters. Then, people would still live in those Kaccha houses and thrive on farming before the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah came and became their ‘dream merchant’.

But before having rendezvous with their dream run, Chanderkote was struggling to come out of an invasive backwardness and remoteness. The dual dilemma disappeared by summer 2000. That year, the much-awaited construction of Baglihar Dam had begun amid fanfare in this part of Pir Panjal overlooked by the mighty Himalayas.

Shortly the villagers saw truckloads of men and machines arriving in the village. The rush was pouring in for paving way to the run-of-the-river power project on roaring Chenab River.

“All of a sudden,” says Aulad Ali, an elder and eye-witness, “a swarm of individuals had turned up in the village.” But the construction extravaganza wasn’t possible without the local hand and support. In anticipation of local expectations, the then Farooq Abdullah government had done its homework. It offered a bouquet of employment to the villagers in the construction boom. The employment proved an opportunity for the villagers to alter their course of lives.

Meanwhile, the rush kept mounting in Chanderkote, gradually fading its sleepy looks. Among the visitors were planners, engineers and consultants. Intercepting Chenab and tearing Peaks for dam construction wasn’t possible for them without local workforce. As the things turned out shortly, the villagers eventually became the ‘assets’ for the project, deep seated in towering peaks.

“Men from Chanderkote massively participated in the dam construction by chipping  in with their constructive inputs,” says Aulad, sitting inside a footwear shop in busy Chanderkote bazaar. “Even the officials appreciated the villagers for emerging a reckoning force for the project.” And for playing their part, the gates of employment were only opening for the locals in the power project, thus ushering a change over Chanderkote.

The ‘change’ besides flipping the image of the village made it a lively place – a literal cultural pot, where foreigners, people from different states of India and locals converged to construct the J&K’s own power project. In the long run, the working interaction went on to alter Chanderkote’s lifestyle.

To begin with, the ‘guaranteed’ employment altered ninety percent kaccha houses dotting the village. Once housing transformation took place, the life standards too flipped. The ‘change’ then turned commercial brimming Chanderkot’s market like never before.

“Villagers were smart enough to sense the need of the times,” says Jagdish Singh, running an eatery in the main market. “Since officials and planners had started living in the project housing colonies in Chanderkote, so they needed market stuffed with different variety of the stock.” As villagers responded by raising the bar of the market, officials from Voith Siemens, Hydro Vevey Ltd, Elexthom, Jaiprakash Associates Ltd, Lahmeyer and other project consultants were seen shopping in the village that had nothing to offer till 2000.

And then, as clock ticked, the ‘change’ would only make Chanderkote a compelling village, now ‘turning heads around’ on nearby Highway unlike before. Besides the mood, the weather also changed. The dam had made the village a weather-friendly unlike the other parts of Ramban still protected by the harsh sun. “And now,” says Singh, “ours is  comparatively cooler place because of the dam.” But the change wasn’t merely about mood and weather, it was equally about the Baglihar’s silent role to uplift Chanderkot’s literacy graph.

Before the boom, Chanderkote was a village with dismal literacy rate. For the villagers known to speak Kashmiri besides Poguli, Sirazi, Dogri and Punjabi languages, the year 1988 is still etched fresh in minds. That year, Chanderkote produced four graduates – Himayat Ali, Khurshid Ali, Abdul Hameed and Athar Singh. For the next 14 years, none could graduate from the village. The deadlock ended in 2002. “Behind the impasse was paucity of educational institutes in the village,” says Sabir Ali, a government teacher, “besides poverty.”

Here lived the Baglihar village, mostly underwater, the remaining structure will be a training centre.

Here lived the Baglihar village, mostly underwater, the remaining structure will be a training centre.

But once the mood ‘fuelled by power’ changed, the literacy rate too soared, presently standing at 50 percent. The credit is given to the opening of the new educational institutions, which began dotting the village once its economic activity began rolling. The picture, however, was completely different before 2000. Then, Chanderkote had only one government high school and one private school. Now, 2 middle schools, 4 primary schools and a college (4km away from Chanderkote) have come up. “Most of the graduates are now employed,” says Sabir. The icing on the cake was the recent KAS selection from the village. Though Majid Ali became Chanderkote’s first KAS officer, but the high dropout rate continues to be a worrying trend.

Behind the alarming dropout rate is an unremitting flow of bucks in this highway village. For the young, working at the dam for money is still a preference than sitting in classroom for study. The elders call it an “evil temptation”, fuelled by the improved wages. What started as Rs 45/day in 2000 has surged to Rs 400/day in 2015 as a wage to a construction labourer. “Besides some 200 young men of this village own their cabs, mostly at service of the power project,” says Amir, a young driver, a class 10 dropout. But before one could question the nature of ‘change’, the villagers assert, “it is more progressive than regressive”.

An apparent sign of the ‘change’ being progressive is supported by the internal migration in Chanderkote. The movement started soon after the village became the hotspot of growth. The rush mainly descended from nearby hills besides pouring in from neighbouring villages. All of them want to be part of the progressive caravan. Villages like Rajgarh, Ganote, Sanasar and Sena Bhatti besides tehsils like Assar, Bhagwah, Ramsoo and Chenani mobilised massively towards Chanderkote. The rush also poured from the farther end, even the 75km away Jammu Tawi Railway Station was on the go.

“Over the years,” says Tariq Ahmad, a local grocer, “those people too became the part of Chanderkote’s success story. The village accommodated all and emerged as a mini-cosmopolitan city.” But not many know that in the face of perpetual influx, the village hierarchy was also changing.

Earlier, Chanderkote was dominated by Muslims with surname, Ali. These Sheena descendents had populated the village some 170 years ago, when they were uprooted from Gilgit (now in Pakistan) by Zorawar Singh, the legendary military commander of Maharaja Gulab Singh. Over the years, these people had become lock, stock and barrel of Chanderkote before Hindu Rajputs, Bhagats and Megh (Scheduled Caste) arrived to be the part of the village’s rise in the garb of power gusto. “And now,” says Sabir, the teacher, “Chanderkote has 60:40 Muslim-Hindu population ratio.”

Today, he says, around 4800 people live in Chanderkote, including outsiders. Over the years, these men, now owing land and properties in the village, have challenged the monopoly of the Ali clan over Chanderkote. With progress sweeping over this highway village, the locals say, it was never a question of dominance, but development.

And to get their share in that development, some brokers also turned up on the scene and began trading, making overnight riches. The villagers say the grass was especially greener for contractors, who secured major projects and ended up making huge profits.

But the boom was altering Chanderkote mostly for good, they say. The outcome of the progressive run ensured an uninterrupted power supply to the village. The power made it prosperous. It flourished the local business units and small scale industries. And the same upsurging progress elevated cost of the land, from Rs 25,000 per kanal in 1999 to Rs 3 lakh/marla of land in 2015. But while sun was shining in Chanderkote, it was sundown in Baglihar, the village that vanished in the history only to pave way to the J&K’s own Power Project.

A mournful air becomes obvious when Oma Shankar talks about his village. For this 25-year-old youth, the last ten years were mostly consumed by the 2005 summer nightmare. The horrendous episode not only devoured his calm, but also his hearth, home and hamlet.

Ten years ago, as a routine July day dawned in Baglihar village, the then teenager Shankar was helping his mother in the field. The level in Chenab flowing close to his village was swelling perilously. The soaring temperature was adding massive glacial meltdown in the river. Some distance ahead of his village, the flow shortly washed away 105-meter long steel bridge. It was the most crucial infrastructure near the dam site. Three other bridges including a footbridge also inundated in Chenab.

But what wreaked havoc in Baglihar village was the diversion tunnel, the first requirement for diverting the water flow and work on the main river bed.

Once waters raced through their farmland, Shankar and his mother started run for safety. The panic run shortly overtook the other 7 households of the village, fleeing by abandoning everything. Shankar and his villagers ascended the nearby hill for the safety. From the safe elevation as he turned backside, he saw Chenab consuming everything in Baglihar – paddy fields, ranting cattle, plantations, everything. At that spot where the entire village had converged momentarily, he heard loud cries raised relentlessly by the villages upon glimpsing their houses falling like a pack of cards in the deluging run of Chenab.

The roaring Chenab then went berserk towards its right bank where a village populated by 20 households met the same fate. The village Kulthi too became history in that summer stroke. “In that disaster triggered by the dam collapse,” says Shankar, as he takes a good look at his submerged village from Baglihar dam site, “we lost our world, forever.” For the days together, the homeless villagers took shelter on the upper reaches. Losing everything to angry Chenab made them inconsolable, for days together…

The Baglihar dam that evoked a huge public enthusiasm in the region was originally to be established near the banks of Baglihar village. It was after extensive assessment that planners declared the site undesired for the construction citing geographical hurdles. Later, for the power project construction, 1062 kanals of land was acquired in villages Dharmound, Dhalwas, Kunfer and Jathgali.

Oma Shankar is always emotionally charged because after losing his home to the dam, he was employed to up-keep the same stretch.

Oma Shankar is always emotionally charged because after losing his home to the dam, he was employed to up-keep the same stretch.

Though the location of the power project changed, but the name, Baglihar remained.

After spending days on peaks huddled together, the villagers from obliterated Baglihar began scattering away. Shankar, who lost his shepherd father in childhood, too moved away along with his mother to populate new areas. For this Shirazi speaking population, a peasant community, there was no hope of going back to their submerged roots.

By then, the project management had prepared all documents assessing the damages. Shankar too queued up for rehabilitation. “Feeling then was mixed,” he says, taking a good look at nearby flowing Chenab. “Suddenly, it was hurtful to become dependent from once being proud self-sustaining families.”

It didn’t take Shanker and others much time to realise that Baglihar wasn’t lone village vanished in Chenab in that day of July 2005. The number of such obliterated villages was counted at forty, including Gagla, Zangli, Sowa, Khaleni, Marsu, Koda Pani, Jathi, Assar, Trungal, Karmeel, Aleh, Puldoda and others. Besides uprooting them, the devastation also triggered education mess for the kids of these families.

Once the rehabilitation was announced, Shankar too figured among the 175 Project Affected Families (PAFs). Such families were more in Doda (156) than in Ramban (19). The fact-finding exercise put the count of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) at 1750 – 190 in Ramban and 1560 in Doda.

After making it official, the next move was to allot lands to PAFs. The land for 156 PAFs of Doda was identified in Karmail, Shiva, Suhanda, Jangalwar and Khellani villages. The rest 19 PAFs from Ramban were resettled in village Tringla. The entire rehabilitation exercise cost the authorities total Rs 65,13,58,593. Even then, the authorities were taken to court by PAFs over recurring grievances.

And then in the face of proceedings before the Civil Courts and various litigations of the PAFs, the administration of power project proposed a high level autonomous Grievances Redressal Authority Cell for Baglihar. Things might have changed now, but nostalgia triggered by departed roots has remained grounded, even after a decade.

But in Chanderkote, the prosperous change has apparently left no room for nostalgia. Tea stalls might be still around, but it is no longer a simple highway village. The villagers now dwell in well-furnished houses and everyone owns a car besides working in service sector like never before.

Perhaps Farooq Abdullah, who visited Chanderkote as the ‘dream merchant’ in the summer of 2000, was right to announce: “Time has come for you people to wear jeans!” Then, senior Abdullah’s witty remarks, like always, evoked amusement. But now, as the highway hangover has taken over, Abdullah is no more a ‘laughing stock’ in Chanderkote!


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