Refugees at home: Back to Kashmir from exile, Pandits continue to suffer in rehab colonies

Earlier this year, a proposal by the central government to build “composite townships” for Kashmiri Pandits in the valley sparked widespread uproar.
Refugees at home: Back to Kashmir from exile, Pandits continue to suffer in rehab colonies
Refugees at home: Back to Kashmir from exile, Pandits continue to suffer in rehab colonies
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Seven years after a special rehabilitation package was announced by the central government to encourage the return of Kashmir Pandits, it has failed to develop into a successful model to attract migrant Pandits to Kashmir. In fact, even those who did come back under the scheme are left to rue unfulfilled promises.  

 In 2008, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced Rs 1,614 crore employment-cum-rehabilitation package for the resettlement of Kashmiri migrants in the valley. About three lakh Pandits had left the Valley when the first wave of militancy began 25 years ago. As part of the package, 3000 state government jobs were offered to the educated youth of the community. The government also built temporary transit accommodation for them with a promise of facilitating their permanent settlement in the valley.

Having lived in squalid migrant camps for two decades, a stable government job convinced some to return.  Out of the 3000 jobs advertised by the state government, 1533 selected candidates are currently working in various districts in Kashmir. They are living in five Pandit settlement colonies – basically rows of pre-fabricated structures – in Kulgam, Baramulla, Budgam and two other districts in Kashmir. The rehabilitation package that, perhaps, was seen as the step towards the return of thousands of Pandits to Kashmir has since turned into a tale on unfulfilled promises. 

The government’s failure in proper implementation of the rehabilitation program on the ground has led to growing resentment among residents. Over-crowded accommodations, delay in payment of salaries, lack facilities are part just of their growing problem.

Sanjay Tikoo, President Kashmiri Pandits Colony, that is now home to 700 Pandits in Vessu  Kulgam in South Kashmir, blames both the state and central government for not taking doing enough. He says the government has failed to deliver on the promises it had made to the community before they had agreed to return. 

“These packages are announced for media and, not for Kashmiri Pandits. The government has failed to provide us even the basic facilities here. We have been deceived by the government. If the government is unable to rehabilitate 1500 Pandits, how can it resettle 60,000 migrant families?” he asks.

37-year-old Sunil Pandita, a resident in the colony had returned to Kashmir in 2011 after getting a job in the state education department under the package. Pandita lives here alone in a room shared by three other people. His wife and two children are still in Jammu.  

“There is one kitchen and one bathroom for all of us. There is no privacy. We are forced to share our lives with strangers. Under these circumstances bringing my family here is not possible. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but it seems the government has completely forgotten us,” he says.

For them, it's not just about housing. Living away from their families and relatives here has also created a sense of isolation among the residents. Most of these colonies are located on the outskirts of the city. Their lives are confined within the closely guarded gates of the colony.

“We can’t bring our families here and our jobs require us to be in Kashmir. This is not rehabilitation, it's forced separation from our families,” says Ashish, another resident in the colony.

Regular delays in the payment of their salaries have further led to disenchantment among the community.  Some of the residents are even contemplating leaving Kashmir if the problem is not addressed.

“I have not received my salary for last three month. We depend on it, our families depend on it,” says Khedar Kaul, a government teacher.

While the state government created jobs for the Pandit. Their salaries are paid by the central government under the package. This has created a bureaucratic hassle has become a bottleneck in the payment of their salaries on time.

Speaking to The News Minute, an official of the Migrant Relief and Rehabilitation department that oversees the implementation of the package put the blame of delays in salary on the state government. “We have always released funds in a timely manner to the respective departments they are employed under. It is their responsibility to make sure everyone gets their salaries in time.”

When asked about the lack of facilities colonies and more than two families having to live on sharing basis, the official said it is aware of the situation. “The issue has taken up with the government, but it will take time to solve,” he said.

Earlier this year, a proposal by the central government to build “composite townships” for Kashmiri Pandits in the valley sparked widespread uproar.  Both separatists and mainstream politicians expressed their reservations over the creation of such settlements. Fearing it will create a chasm between Pandits and Muslims, who had lived together in unity for centuries before Kashmiri pandits were driven out from the valley by militants in the 1990s. 

Those opposing the idea, argue, that the members of the community should return to their original homes and live alongside those they were separated from during the violence of the 1990s.

At present, there are about 62,000 registered Kashmiri migrant families in the country, who have moved from the valley to Jammu, Delhi and other parts of the country.

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