The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) received complaints from a number of small farmers of Kartarpur whose land falls on the road map of the Corridor. They alleged that:
- the district government has been appropriating their lands in villages located around the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, also known as Kartarpur Sahib, for the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor intended to facilitate the access of Sikh pilgrims on both sides of the border;
- the government is forcing the entire village of Kothay Khurd to vacate their ancestral place for the creation of the Corridor;
- around 600 villagers in the Shakargarh tehsil of Narowal district have been ordered by the district administration to vacate their houses immediately; and
- a couple of villages will also be demolished to pave the way for the Corridor and the residents of those villages have been verbally asked by the authorities to vacate their homes as soon as possible.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan sent a five-member fact-finding mission that included a lawyer and a journalist to gather facts about the situation and also to suggest corrective measures for the redressal of the grievances of affectees in this particular case and in all future cases of land acquisition for public purposes.
On 18 March 2019, the team met the affected villagers and the deputy commissioner to take their perspective and also paid a visit to Darbar Sahib and its surrounding areas for an overview of the ongoing work and the resulting destruction of standing crops and trees.
Kartarpur, meaning ‘place of God’, is located in tehsil Shakargarh, Narowal District in the Punjab. The Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara, an imposing white structure, stands in the middle of lush green fields 2.5 km off Shakargarh Road in Kartarpur. The first guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, founded Kartarpur in 1504 AD and his Sikh commune comprised people of all religions and castes. He spent the last 17 years of his life there.
Kartarpur Sahib is just 4km from the Indian border with Dera Baba Nanak on the other side and, on a clear day, both sides are visible to each other. However, travel across the international border between Pakistan and India is restricted for the average Indian or Pakistani. Currently, the uneven path leading to the border passes through fields.
The Kartarpur Corridor is a proposed border corridor between India and Pakistan, connecting the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in Gurdaspur district of India and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan. On 28 November 2018 the governments of India and Pakistan took a momentous step towards making a corridor between these two gurdwaras to enable visa-free travel for Sikh pilgrims. A foundation-laying ceremony marked the beginning of its construction on the Pakistani side and it is hoped that this Kartarpur corridor will be ready in 2019, when Sikhs mark the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth.
Statements of the affected male villagers from Dodhy
The team visited the houses of the affected people of village Dodhy. The people said that the work on the proposed Kartarpur Corridor started in December 2018 soon after the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Darbar Sahib in November 2018. Some officials in plainclothes came and ordered the marking and digging up of the land at some places. The villagers alleged that they were not given any information, let alone taken into confidence. Their crops were destroyed and they were not paid a single paisa. When asked whether they were given any notice before the operation took place, they said, ‘we were informed hardly one day before and in some cases a couple of hours before cutting the crops. The labourers, under the supervision of the contractor, started bulldozing the crops and destroying whatever they found in their way after intimidating the farmers.’ According to them, as of now, around 1,500 acres of land have been forcibly acquired by the government.
‘What the authorities have been doing cannot be called acquisition of lands. It is simply snatching of land at gunpoint,’ said a farmer whose agriculture land had been bulldozed by the authorities. Initially, the contractors arrived with bulldozers and cranes and started razing the crops and, if the owners resisted, some men who introduced themselves as Army officials warned the locals of the dire consequences of putting up any sort of resistance or hindrance in the way of ongoing work.
The team learned that the residents of two villages, Kothy Khurd and Kothy Kalan, have been ordered to vacate their homes. They have been informed that their villages will be demolished completely for the construction of the Corridor.
The people informed the team that in the past people from the Sikh community had approached them and asked to purchase some land so that they could build a path to facilitate access to the gurdwara. They offered Rs5 million per acre. The farmers had refused their offer believing that the sale of the land would be against their interests. They now regretted that decision in the light of the government’s intentions to take their lands without any compensation, or very cheaply.
In response to a question as to whether they had approached the authorities to voice their concerns, they said that the villagers had formed a committee. They had visited the office of the deputy commissioner and shared their reservations, and appealed him to intervene in the matter. The deputy commissioner had simply said that they would be compensated for their lands and the losses they had suffered without giving any specific date or mentioning any specific amount. The DC did not tell them when or how they would be compensated. The people also said they had been expecting to hold a meeting around the gurdwara that would be attended by the DC, AC, district nazim and some local political figures. They further told the team that the tehsildar from the revenue department had visited the site and, when asked by the villagers to share with them the plan for the ongoing work, he had expressed his lack of knowledge about it.
They also told the team that they staged demonstrations to protest against the highhandedness of the district administration but to no avail. They also complained about the role of the media which they said had confined its coverage to positive aspects of the plan, but had not informed the nation that the project was being carried out at the cost of people’s livelihood and housing.
They complained that they do not even know who they have to approach in this matter. They have been told that they need to approach the forestry department for compensation for their trees, the irrigation department about the destruction of their tubewells, and the revenue department regarding the destruction of their crops and the acquired land. This has caused unprecedented confusion and uncertainty among them.
Statements of the women
The women of the affected villages were equally outspoken: ‘We will not leave our ancestral houses and graves of our elders whatever it may take. We braved floods, wars, but never left this land. We have given our blood to this land. How can anyone expect that we will leave this place? Farming is the only skill we have learnt through the years and we are good at it. Being illiterate, we cannot find any jobs. If our agricultural land is snatched from us without giving us an alternative, we, our children and our cattle, will starve to death.’
‘In 1988, the whole village was submerged following the brutal floods, and the people had to spend around twenty days under the sky. The flood also swept away their crops and cattle. After that they started from scratch. They rebuilt their houses, re-cultivated crops and purchased cattle. Now when we were feeling settled after a long struggle we have been given orders to vacate our homes and leave our lands.’
Commenting on the role of the local political leadership in this matter, the affected women said that they had been pawns in the hands of the authorities who had warned them against raising their concerns and holding protests. They had been told that the land acquiring authorities would take stern action against them if they spoke out against the appropriation of their lands and destructions of their crops. MNA Ahsan Iqbal had visited the site and asked the officials present there to address the people’s grievances. However, to this day, they were unaware of any response from the authorities to Mr Iqbal’s request.
When asked whether an offer of cash from the government in lieu of their lands would be acceptable to them, they said, ‘cash can never be an alternative to the land that has been feeding us and our children for generations. If the government cannot reverse its decision of taking our lands, it should provide us fertile agricultural land in some nearby area and should compensate us fairly for the losses we suffered due to destruction of crops and trees.’
A few widows who were dependent on their lands and livestock to raise their children as single parents were devastated by the state of confusion and uncertainty. ‘If we are deprived of our lands without a well-thought-out plan of re-settlement, our generation will be wiped out,’ one widow said.
The women wanted to know why, if the government had drawn up a plan to acquire their lands, they not been informed before the cultivation of the wheat crop.
Statement of Deputy Commissioner, Narowal
The fact-finding team later met with Narowal Deputy Commissioner (DC) Waheed Asghar, who is supervising the land acquisition plan, to take his version of the issue and convey to him the grievances of the affected people. He said the government was acquiring the land under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Acquisition Act 1894 and it would pay compensation for the crops and land. However, he was unable to give a timeframe for the payment as the funds had not yet been released. He added that compensation would be paid according to the scheduled rate.
He said that he wanted to make clear that the land had been purchased not grabbed by the government as claimed by some quarters. He said that so far 1,493 acres had been acquired; the requisition for 1,100 acres had been received first and, later on, 493 acres of land was added.
Giving a briefing about the procedure for the acquisition of land, he said that the land acquiring authority asks the district administration for the acquisition of specific land for a specific purpose. After receiving the requisition from the acquiring authority, its acquisition was managed in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act 1864. In this current case, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was the acquiring authority. Several agencies/institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Religious Affairs, NESPAK, and many consultants among others, were part of the process of making an assessment regarding the required quantity and location of the land. He said that in addition to the 1,500 acres already acquired, another 1,500 acres was likely to be taken in the future. He predicted that there would be a mini city around the Darbar Sahib.
The DC said that it had not yet been registered in the name of the government, and it could therefore be termed an under-acquisition. The locals whose land had been acquired had wrongly claimed that they had not been informed and taken into confidence—they had been notified under Section 4 of the Punjab Land Acquisition Act1894. When asked whether Section 4 had been translated into Urdu to help the people easily understand it, or announced through loudspeakers etc. to make sure the illiterate people of the area also got first-hand information, the DC said he was not sure about that. He added, ‘We have held meetings with the locals in the open at Kartarpur Darbar and also met them in our office here to listen to their grievances. They have put forward five demands, out of which four were legitimate whereas one demand was actually a favour they wanted from the government. The residents of Kartarpur wanted a share in the jobs to be created at the Corridor.’
When asked about the crops and trees of the locals that had been destroyed without due notice, Dr Asghar said that once Section 4 had been issued, any private rights over the land were suspended. Responding to the complaints of the owners, he said that they would be paid in accordance with the scheduled rate and that 15 percent compulsory acquisition charge would be added to the scheduled rate. The rate is determined taking into account the purchasing power of the locals. The escalation in land prices as a result of the initiation of any project does not count when the assessment of land price is made.
The Deputy Commissioner admitted that payment to the affected people had been delayed. He said, however, that his office was trying to expedite the process and he was hopeful that all the people concerned would receive their due compensation as soon as possible.
With regard to the government’s alleged plan to demolish two small villages and displace their residents, the DC said that an unplanned settlement namely Kothy Khurd was to be demolished and the residents would have to plan their own relocation as ‘resettlement of the displaced as a result of land acquisition for a public project is not covered under the Punjab Land Acquisition Law 1894.’
Observations of the team
- An overwhelming majority of affected people have not been informed about when and how they will be compensated. Only a small group of affectees who approached the DC’s office were told that they would be compensated for their lands. No timeframe was given to them.
- The owners whose land has been acquired and the residents of two small villages who have been ordered to vacate were kept completely in the dark about the government’s plan to acquire land for the construction of the Corridor.
- The affected people include a number of contractors who have been cultivating land on lease. The construction of the Corridor and other ancillary buildings on this land has caused a huge loss in terms of the money and labour invested in the crops being removed by the authorities, besides depriving them of their sole source of income.
- The team found the residents of area surrounding Darbar Sahib were in a state of extreme anxiety about their future.
- The Land Acquisition Act 1854 has become redundant and is unable to protect the fundamental rights of citizens whose lands are acquired by the government. It should be revised and
- People’s right to information should be respected while carrying out such mega projects.
- No involuntary resettlement should occur until a systematic census and inventory has been carried out to the satisfaction of the residents affected by the project.
- There should be a transparent and efficient grievance redressal mechanism to address any violation of people’s economic, social, or cultural rights.
- The people’s demand for fair compensation for the destruction of standing crops and trees, and for alternative land to farm, must be given due consideration bearing in mind the likely increase in price of agricultural land in and around Kartarpur.
- The affected people should have a share in the job opportunities being created as a result of the construction of the Corridor.
The fact-finding team was comprised of Asad Jamal Advocate; journalist Sher Ali; HRCP council member Raja Asharaf; and HRCP staff members Tahira Habib and Nadeem Abbas.