The 19th-century ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh famously built a bridge over a canal that connected Amritsar to Lahore after his favourite dancer Moran lost her silver sandals while crossing the flooded water channel. The promptness shown by the ruler at the behest of the dancer gave the bridge its name – Pul Kanjari – a derogatory reference to Moran’s caste, Kanjar.
It is said that the bridge catapulted a small village named after the bridge into a blooming trade town, facilitating an easy exchange system between the two sides of river Ravi.
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In 1947, the partition of India ended the trade between the two sides, the greatest impact of which was on Pul Kanjari. As fate would have it, the village became the last hamlet on Punjab’s side of the border, reducing it to a thinly-inhabited security outpost along the border.
Today, Border Security Force (BSF) officials welcome you into the village with suspecting eyes. Despite the presence of a well-kept 19th-century hamam and a recently built war memorial reminding you of the village’s glorious past, tourists barely visit the village.
A part of a village called Khurd Kalan, Pul Kanjari is lost in its own memories. The neglect and indifference the nearly 1,000 families have faced from successive governments in the last 70 years is symptomatic of the institutional apathy towards hundreds of villages situated along the Punjab’s side of the border – a stretch of 553 kilometres marked by stones, trenches and bars, crisscrossed by the Ravi and Sutlej rivers.
Known as the Radcliffe line, the border runs across the districts of Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Fazilka in Punjab, and the villages situated within a five-kilometre radius around the border tell a tale of a slow decline and irreparable rupture.
Exclusion by fencing
For Khurd Kalan’s resident Gurjinder Singh, cultivating his farm has been a bureaucratic nightmare for years. “At 8:30 every morning, I, along with many other villagers, queue up with a bag full of identity cards and permission letters to get an entry into my own farm. After a thorough check, the BSF officials escort us and our accomplices to our land,” he said.
A majority of Singh’s agricultural holdings is situated outside the barbed wire fence that the BSF erected in the late 1980s to keep a check on the infiltration of terrorists and arm smuggling. The distance from the border to the fence is anywhere between half to three kilometres. Since the area in between is controlled by the BSF, it has adversely affected the livelihoods of many residents of these border villages whose agricultural holdings lie in this no man’s land.
Villagers are barred from entering the land beyond the wires. Only those who own land on the other side are allowed, but only with permission. The entire land holding of several farmers is on the other side of the fence.
Villagers often have to go through a web of bureaucratic hassles to get the necessary permission to enter. Despite having the necessary permission, much of their access to the fenced land depends on the BSF’s everyday security drills.
“Because of the fence, it has been a daily struggle for us. Each and everything we carry – from lunch boxes, seed bags to farm equipment – is checked. As we do not have free access to our own land, we cannot tend our crop during fog, rains or a storm. We have to work according to the convenience of the BSF officials,” Singh said.
“Our problems of access and mobility have been the same for the last 20 years. Yet, the governments have not made any permanent arrangements for us,” he said.
Khurd Kalan paints a bleak picture of development on all counts. Poor healthcare and primary schooling, inadequate infrastructure and intermittent power supply are among the things that the villagers have learnt to live with. Most residents either never attended school or dropped out early.
Most farmers who own land on the other side of the fence are either small or marginal farmers who do not own any heavy machinery like tractors or threshers. Therefore, these farmers usually rely on getting their heavy machines on rent – a normal practice in the rest of Punjab. But in this border village, each of these machines needs to be registered for temporary use, which is yet another long-drawn bureaucratic struggle every agricultural season.
Such problems often delay their crop cycles, the brunt of which they have to suffer during the time of sale.
The hassle of procuring farm machines has forced these farmers to continue with redundant practices in farming. In such a situation, they have also been forced to depend on labourers who are hard to come by in this thinly populated village.
Their miseries are worsened by the BSF fixing a time for these villagers to farm. “We can enter our farm only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This limits our productivity. For years we have been demanding that we must be allowed to remain in our farms at least until 6 p.m. No one understands that we are struggling to survive,” said Singh even as he blamed successive state government in Punjab for ignoring their plight.