Shimla, December 2
“Balh”, is a pahadi connotation to flat land in the local dialect of Himachal Pradesh. Balh is an area in Mandi district, where an international airport is proposed but an unequivocal resistance is built by the residents of the region. The airport should not be made in one of the most fertile lands of the state, is the common voice.
There are many reasons for opposing this project of the central government to which the state government is a keen facilitator. The chief minister of Himachal is from Mandi district and is an ardent advocate of this project. The reasons for opposition include ecological, social, and economic and besides, all of them are linked to the sustainability of the livelihoods of the people living in that region.
Before we understand the project, it is better to trace the history of this region especially how this land was secured fighting against the landlords and then again protected when this land was to be converted/submerged into a lake.
The Balh area was under the Suket princely state of Mandi and this region is known for building movements against the landlords on the slogan of “land to the tiller”.
The Kisan Sabha was the torch bearer of this movement and later successful implementation of the land reforms took place because of this movement. This region is one of the best agricult ural regions of the state. The water table is quite high (almost 10-15 feet) and the land is very fertile. The kisans after owning land (land reforms) switched over to cash crops and produced off season vegetables throughout the year, which enhanced their incomes substantially. The Indo-German agricultural project in Bangrotu in Balh valley made a big impact in this transformation.
Interestingly, the Balh valley, in the initial proposal of Beas Satlujlink( Beas was diverted from Pandoh dam in Mandi and through an underground tunnel was run through Balh valley in a large canal and then merged with Satluj-called Beas Satluj link) was proposed to be a lake instead of the canal that runs through the valley. This proposal was mooted in 1962. But because of the strong opposition from the people and the CPI(M) MLA Tulsi Ram from Balh (1972-77), the proposal had to be shelved and thus the land was protected.
Impact on the area
Now, as of today, in this valley, there are nearly 10,000 people and over 2,200 families living. In case this international airport is made, all of them will lose land and will have to migrate out of the region. Not just that, the impact would be far wider on animal husbandry and the entire bio-diversity of the region.
The state does not have much land for agricultural purposes as most of the landmass is rocky-mountains and forests. The forests comprise almost 67 % of the landmass. Just 14 % of the total land was available for agriculture. Given that situation, large tracts of land were lost in the ‘national interests’; hydro-power generation and construction of large dams, which submerged the best of agricultural land in the state. The two large dams, Bhakra in Bilaspur district and Pong in Kangra district ousted thousands of families and till date, they have not been rehabilitated even after more than four decades of operation. A few of them were sent to Rajasthan, however, had to come back bare hand. Nearly 1 lakh hectare land was lost out of nearly 6 lakh hectare ploughable land in the state in these projects. Then with four-laning of roads and laying of transmission towers more land was acquired from the farmers. Hence securing land is a very important issue for the small peasants in the state, else they will lose their livelihood.
Point to ponder
Moreover, this is the region which is a designated flood zone and the area has several times been flooded. Despite that, the proposal is to construct an airport at such a place.
The proposed airport will swallow eight villages completely and will acquire nearly 3,500 bighas of land(1 hectare=12 bigha), in which 3,040 bighas comprise land owned by peasants and 460 bighas is government land. Nearly 2,000 houses will be demolished.
Nearly 12 hectares of the demarcated protected forest will be cut down which is a centuries-old forest and have different species of trees and other flora. This acquisition is in a way violation of the Land Acquisition Act- 2013, where multi-crop sowing land should not be acquired for non-agri purposes.
Technical impediment still remains
The main purpose of the airport will still remain defeated. To make it functional for landing large aircraft cannot be fulfilled as for that 3,150-metre-long airstrip is required. Whereas the total availability of the space provides only for landing 75-seater aircraft as the airstrip would be no more than 2,150 metres long. There are three airports to cater to such aircraft in a vicinity of just 50-kilometre air distance: Shimla-50 km, Bhuntar(Kullu)- 30 km and Gaggal( Kangra)- 50 km.
Moreover, out of eight villages, six comprise with more than 75 % dalit population and 20 % OBC. Because of the land reforms movement, a majority of the population who got land were dalits and other backward sections. This move will turn them landless.
About the agitation
The kisans and other sections of the people have been incessantly raising their voices against this unilateral move of the governments, both the central and the state. There have been successful protest demonstrations throughout the region which are led by ‘BalhBachaoKisanSangarsh Samiti’. A very successful human chain was organised recently by the kisans of the region. The other sections of the people of the district and the state, including social and political activists will also have to support the demand of the agitating people of Balh valley, else the population of the region is not critical enough to affect the change in the proposal of the government.