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May 31, 1999
The Rediff Interview/Qamar Ali Akhoon
'India should have begun the air strikes earlier'Jammu and Kashmir Public Works Department Minister Qamar Ali Akhoon has been given a deadly assignment -- to be in Kargil, his electoral constituency, to supervise the relief measures for the victims of trans-border firing.
Chopper-flown to the troubled town, the first-time minister has been there since May 15. At the Dhak bungalow I, located in a 'relatively safe' area, Akhoon spoke toRediff On The NeT a day after India started airstrikes. Excerpts from the conversation with Chindu Sreedharan , which was punctuated by shell-bursts too close for comfort:
Can you tell us about the transformation that Kargil has undergone in the recent past?
Kargil was a most peaceful area. It was not touched by militancy even when the valley was very much affected. Unfortunately, for the last three years Pakistan has been shelling in the populated areas here, even in the (Kargil) town. So at this juncture the people feel insecure.
In light of India's air strikes, how safe do you think your constituents are, especially those in Kargil town?
We are apprehensive. There is a lot of insecurity. If there is retaliation from across the border we will have to face it. But I endorse the decision. In fact, India has delayed the air strikes. They should have been started earlier.
Why do you say that?
Because this shelling always targets the civilian population -- here also, and in Pakistan-occupied (Kashmir) also. This will force the two countries to arrive at a concrete decision faster.
Do you think the fear of retaliation is great enough to call for evacuation?
Then why is the district administration not doing that? Yesterday (the day air strikes began and the fear of retaliation was at its highest), district officials hadn't made any arrangements for evacuation in Kargil. People were fleeing on their own.
Most of the Drass area and the border villages have already been evacuated. But compared to last year, most of the people are staying back as far as the Kargil town is concerned. Last year the entire town was deserted. At this moment, I think only 30 per cent of the residents have moved out.
What is your estimate of migrants from Drass and border villages to the outskirts of Kargil? What are the kind of relief measures you are providing them?
The number of migrants is under 20,000. The administration gave them transport facilities. We are providing them five kilos of rice or atta and four litres of kerosene.
What about shelter?
The villagers are providing that without them having to pay any money.
Is the state giving the migrants or the villagers any monetary support, any allowances?
No. But we are assessing the property damaged and lost. We plan to provide compensation for that. So far as the casualties are concerned, we will pay Rs 100,000 for those killed. For the injured, the compensation will depend upon the seriousness of the injury.
You said you will compensate the property lost or damaged. What kind of budget do you have for it?
Last year the honourable CM (Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah) had sanctioned Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million). The prime minister had also given Rs 1 crore. So far as the property loss is concerned, we will pay 50 per cent of the assessed value.
A major complaint many of the migrants have levelled against your government is that neither you, their MLA, nor Dr Abdullah, their CM, bothered to give them an audience.
The honourable CM has visited the place. On his direction ration has been provided. On his direction bunkers have been built. The majority of the people are happy with the government. I would say only selected people are unhappy. I can't understand why... where did you hear them saying so?
There are a lot of our Opposition parties there. But I guarantee you that 60 to 70 per cent people there are happy with us. I have been there many times. Last time I went there, I raised the ration from two kilos rice to five kilos. They used to get only two litres of kerosene before I came. I raised it to 4 litres.
Did the CM have any direct contact with the people?
He has directed me to have direct contact. He has told me to be here and meet the people. He has asked me to rectify their grievances.
This time the condition of the migrants is much worse than it was last time. If last year they had to stay away for six or seven days, this time they have been here for over 20 days already. How do you plan to tackle this situation?
The villagers of the area are very co-operative. They are accommodating the migrants in their houses. As far as rations are concerned, we are already on the job. Whatever troubles the villagers have our DC (deputy commissioner) and other officials will try to solve it. If the situation continues like this, we will see about a contingency plan.
Contingency plan as in shifting of the town?
Shifting of the town is not the right solution. It is the last resort. It is not a small exercise to shift a town like Kargil. People are settled here. They have their farms around, all the government offices are here. So it is a big decision.
Also, shelling was only related to this area last year. This year you see all the Drass area affected. If we shift Kargil shelling may start in other places. We cannot shift all places. So, you see, it is not a lasting solution.
Under the present circumstances, I won't advocate shifting. We have to wait and watch.
What is the lasting solution? How long do you think the situation will continue like this?
Shelling here and shelling there is not the solution. My request to the heads of both countries is that they come to the negotiating table. They should sort out the matter there.
When Vajpayeesaab went to Pakistan and brought about the Lahore Declaration, we welcomed it. We thought the border tension would cease completely with it. We thought the peaceful atmosphere here, which had been destroyed, would return. But now we are disappointed.
All over the world other countries are trying to settle matters bilaterally. Before Independence this was one country. Our culture was the same. Then why can't we solve our troubles bilaterally? The gun is not the solution.
If you are pushed to the wall, then where would you consider shifting the Kargil town to?
We are talking about shifting 10,000 to 15,000 people. We have to find an area that is away from the shelling range and can accommodate so many. So far we have not identified any such place.
What would be your choice?
In my mind there is only one alternative. Sanku, 40 kilometres away.
Can the shifting be handled by the state government alone?
No. We will require a lot of assistance from the Centre, especially in terms of finance.
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