[Reader-list] Breathless at Battal Balian-by Aditi Bhaduri(in Hindu)

rashneek kher rashneek at gmail.com
Tue Aug 28 09:34:51 IST 2007

The road winds up from Jammu, broad and clean, flanked by shady trees on
either side. The air is still and through the windows of the car all looks
well in God's world. Till the car suddenly takes a turn, crashing as it
would seem into the gree n foliage. A road hidden from the eyes of the world
takes us to the Batal Balian Kashmiri migrant camp. Located near Udhampur,
95 km from Jammu, this place is home for some 2,000 people of India's
largest displaced community — the Kashmiri Pandits.
Why they left

"Migrant" conjures up images of people moving wilfully, if unhappily, from
their native places to others in search of greener pastures. But when you
talk to 70-year-old Mayawati, you hear that the migration was not so much
for greener pastures as it was for safer havens. In her broken Hindi — she
still struggles with the language, turning to her son for help every now and
then in Kashmiri — she recounts the rumours, the threats, the sudden spurt
of killings of Kashmiri Pandits like her, the messages over the mosque, and
finally the sudden, heavy hearted decision to leave. Yet, leave she did,
even though it was not easy at the age of 53 — that was how old she was when
she came here in 1990. Why, they all knew they would soon go back, as soon
as the trouble was over. And that was how Mayawati found herself with her
family — husband, two sons and a daughter-in-law — here in Battal Balian
"migrant camp".
Hope fades

And though it was all painful and uncomfortable, they put up with it all.
There were other families too. It was temporary, they comforted each other.
Soon, the tents concretised into hutments. And even as the country
celebrates its 60th year of independence, Mayawati, her family and
neighbours mark their 17th year in exile here. Her hutment, where the entire
family is squeezed in, is lined with Hindu deities. On the walls hang two
old, faded posters of Pahalgam and Sonmarg. She proudly points to her
five-year-old granddaughter, lying asleep beside her on the floor. Her
husband, deaf and suffering from asthma, sits silently in a corner. Here, in
the isolation of Batal Balian, Mayawati is one of the more fortunate ones.
She has her family around her.

Brijnath, 70, fled here with his wife and son from his native Bijbihara,
where he was engaged in agriculture. The atmosphere of fear that had built
up in their village in Kashmir before their departure, together with the
trauma of flight, uncertainty and camp life caused high levels of stress and
diabetes in his wife. Two years after their arrival here, she died of
cardiac arrest. Brijnath himself suffers from ulcers in the stomach and
acute asthma. Dr. K.L. Chowdhury, Director of the Shriya Bhatt Hospital and
Research Centre, Jammu, recounted that more than a thousand persons died of
heat stroke alone in the very first year of exodus. The Centre is actively
involved in health work with the displaced community.
A familiar pattern

Displacement follows a familiar pattern. It is always the weaker, the more
vulnerable who are displaced. Most of the inmates here came from rural areas
in Kashmir, engaged in agriculture or in petty business. Once displaced, the
displaced invariably suffer other oppressions. As the population here
battled unfamiliar surroundings and hostile climatic conditions, they faced
problems of unemployment and livelihood. Government rations and doles are
humiliating, even insufficient, but accepted silently, with heads down.
Gradually realisation dawned — this was not a temporary phase, this was
becoming home. Cut off, isolated—it takes almost an hour to get to Udhampur
and more than two to Jammu — they have nowhere to turn to for even emergency
needs. Veena Kaul recalls when she had a premature delivery and no transport
was available at the camp to take her to the hospital in Jammu the night she
suddenly had an emergency. There are not even any markets close by, the
residents are brought food and fruits and medicines every week by community
volunteers from Jammu.

Soon, other scripts crept in to the narrative. In 2000, the entire area
around the camp was declared an industrial zone. Even though the Government
had housed a camp here of more than 2,000 people, this was not deemed a
matter of concern. Neither was there any thought of first moving the camp
and then allowing the industries to come up. And so, before anyone could
comprehend what was happening, nine industrial units producing cements,
bricks and plastics, sprang up around the camp, with their fumes and
effluent causing a stranglehold on the environment, polluting it to
dangerous levels. Some of the dwelling quarters are a mere 33 feet away from
the factories. With them, a deluge of respiratory, olfactory and skin
diseases engulfed the camp.
Deceptive peace

The tranquillity and serene beauty of the green-shrouded hills are yet
another deception that greet you here. But soon a steady drone takes over.
Life begins early in this camp, people like to drink and store clean water.
As Gugadevi, 45, shows me, once the factories start churning, a white haze
envelopes the camp and thick sediments form on the water. Yet, there is
acute shortage of electricity here and some of the hutments that have holes
which pass for windows have to keep them open for the little ventilation it
offers — even if it means breathing in the dust. What else can one do when
the temperature is above forty degrees Centigrade?

And that is how 30 per cent of the inmates here, like Brijnath, now find
themselves patients of asthma and bronchitis. Those above 60 years, like
Mohan Lal Kaul or Roopavati need nebulizers and oxygen often. But others
like Lovely, 14, and Manoj, 10, also suffer from acute asthma. Gugadevi's
younger son Kush has continuous mucous running from his nose, thanks to the
industrial zone. Yet, this is not the end of Battal Balian's woe.

In a medical camp conducted by the Shriya Bhat Centre earlier this year, Dr.
Khosa, a leading dermatologist of Jammu, found that almost 50 per cent of
the inmates were afflicted with some kind of skin ailment caused by
environmental injury to skin. Most of the afflicted, like Dazzy Bhat and
Manesh Dhar, whose condition is acute, trace it as a direct fall-out of the
industries that encircle the camp.

Further medical tests revealed that 18 per cent of the inmates are suffering
from deafness and 15 per cent from eye problems — all due to environmental
pollution of noise, dust fumes and toxic waste from the same source.

While people here seemed to be paying the price for their proximity to the
camp, Nanaji, a senior camp inmate and volunteer, laments that not a single
inmate had benefited by getting a job at any of these factories. While 150
of the 300 employable men are without jobs, the State has yet to announce an
employment package!
Memories of home

For these men and women, images of Kashmir are fading in the distance,
dreams of returning home to verdant valleys and clear gurgling streams are
becoming just that — dreams. Life here is now a struggle for basic survival.
The people of Battal Balian have approached all the powers that be — from
the Pollution Control Board and Deputy Commissioner of Udhampur to Farouq
Abdullah, Mufti Mohamed Syed and Chief Minister Azad. A request had also
been sent to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. All they have received are
promises that the camp would soon be shifted to safer environs — promises
that are yet to materialise. When contacted by this writer, the Relief
Commissioner (Migrant), Vinod Kaul, responded that quarters were being
completed near Jammu and the Battal Balian camp would be shifted there by
the end of this year. But the breathless in Battal Balian are not buying
that — not yet.

Rashneek Kher

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