Ferozepur, Punjab – India’s sealed border with Pakistan in northwestern Punjab state may not obstruct local politicians from making promises as voters head for the polls – but for farmers it remains a tiresome obstacle to their livelihoods.
In a rare consensus among rival parties ahead of the general election, politicians have been seeking to capitalise on widespread demands to open border crossings and boost trade as the region’s economy stagnates.
Yet the voters in Punjab’s border belt – 1,876 farming villages with a population of nearly two million people – remain sceptical about promises they have heard before that remain unfulfilled.
Life is particularly complicated for those farming plots within approximately 34,000 acres of fertile land on the “Zero Line” – an area between the International Border marked by white border pillars and the thick electrified fence inside India manned by the country’s Border Security Force (BSF).
Attari Border – we are stuck with sealed borders that hamper trade.”]
Every morning, armed with a scythe and the identity card issued to them by the BSF, husband and wife Gurmukh Singh and Gurpreet Kaur line up at a checkpoint for routine security checks that will enable them to farm their land.
They register their names before a rifle-wielding soldier in BSF fatigues swings open the heavy metal gates to allow the couple to reach their seven-acre plot.
“Finish your work and come back inside [India] by 4.30pm,” they are always instructed, relates Gurmukh Singh as the couple prepare to return home on a bicycle to Hazar Singh Wala village, a few kilometres from the historic Hussainiwala border.
A thick electrified barbed-wire fence that splits the land of these farmers into plots within the “Zero Line” and outside it represents a constant obstacle to their work, turning even a mundane job like getting fodder into an uphill task.
With every passing election, farmers such as Gurmukh Singh have demanded unrestricted access to their land across the wire.
But the polls come and go and the list of unfulfilled promises remains unchanged: railways to connect Punjab’s border villages with Pakistan, freight corridors through checkpoints at Hussainiwala, better compensation for farmers whose land falls under “Zero Line” restrictions, or a liberalised visa regime to boost bilateral trade.
Unlike the rest of India, farming on the “Zero Line” is governed by a stringent list of rules.
Farmers are prohibited from cultivating crops that grow above three feet in height such as sugarcane, cotton and mustard – which can act as camouflage for smugglers and infiltrators – and can have access only from 9am to 5pm.
“It’s not enough time for us, especially during the harvest season,” says Sangam Pratap, a fourth-generation farmer from Ferozepur. “At 4.30pm the BSF soldiers start whistling, a signal for us to start returning.”
Many are still waiting for compensation promised by authorities in 1998 of about $50 (3,000 Indian rupees) per acre for farmers whose land was divided by the barbed wire.
“But after receiving just one payment we were told that the funds have been exhausted,” says Kanwalpreet Singh Pannu, a farmers’ leader whose Kissan Sangarsh Committee (KSC) campaigns for those affected. “Only a handful of us have been compensated and, even so, only partially.”
A fellow farmer, Suraj Singh Bhullar, adds: “We don’t even have the option of selling off our land and moving towards mainland farms. Acres and acres of land inside the “Zero Line”, if sold, will not even fetch us 50,000 rupees ($825), while the same area on this side of the border can be sold for lakhs [100,000s] of rupees.”
Land of martyrs
“Welcome to Ferozepur – The land of Martyrs” reads a signpost leading to a city that has become synonymous with the economic stagnation caused by this closed frontier.
Today it presents a picture of neglect and offers stark proof of how, the length of Punjab’s border belt, any notion of “industrial investment” remains just an aspiration.
“The region’s proximity to the international border, Pakistan and its notorious reputation as a safe haven for smugglers are enough to keep even small-scale industries out of here,” says an official at the local district commissioner’s office.
The closing of Hussainiwala border post in the 1971 war and the later division of Ferozepur into an additional district of Fazilka has frozen the landlocked region in time.
“Before the 1971 war, a lot of fruits and dry fruit came in from Afghanistan via Pakistan through Hussainiwala border into India. But 1971 changed everything,” recounts Haresh Chander, 69, who in the pre-war days ran a fleet of taxis delivering mail to Pakistan.
Since then, he has not once journeyed the 11km from Ferozepur to the Hussainiwala border, and today runs a small restaurant opposite Ferozepur Cantt railway station.
“Everyone in Ferozepur wants the border to open up for the general development of the district. Do you think that will ever happen?”
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Rice grower Joginder Bhulla, who wants to see the Hussainiwala and Sadqi border crossings reopened, says: “My brothers and I produce some of the finest quality rice here – we know that there is a great demand for it, especially in Afghanistan, the Middle East and in Pakistan itself.
“The price of rice has jumped up four times in the last 10 years but – unlike those living closer to the [northern] Attari Border – we are stuck with sealed borders that hamper trade.”
With polling again imminent, the speeches of opposing candidates are all punctuated with commitments to resurrecting India-Pakistan trade through rail and bus connections.
Sunil Jakkar of the Congress party and the BJP’s Shiromani Akali Dal’s Sher Singh Gubaya both seek to capitalise on the demand to reopen the borders, and in almost every meeting Jakkar promises “opening the gates to Pakistan by restoring rail links between Ferozepur and Pakistan. And then farmers can sell the rice directly to Pakistan.”
But a straw poll by Al Jazeera in Ferozepur reveals that few voters are buying these assurances – while investors stay away because of the region’s proximity to the border.
Invasion of wild boars
It would seem that the only real beneficiaries of the stagnation caused by the region’s closed border are the wild boars from Pakistan’s Kasur district, which ravage crops on Indian land within the “Zero Line” as harvesting approaches.
For families in the 371 villages of Ferozepur district, their vote will go to the politicians who can safeguard their crops.
“With hardly any fencing near the Zero Line on the Pakistani side, the wild beasts have a free run and end up destroying our side of fields inside the Zero Line,” says Jagtar Singh as he tends to a good yield of wheat grown on his 15-acre plot.
Even as he steps out of the “Zero Line” into India through the BSF-manned gate, he cannot stop himself from looking back.
Al Jazeera accompanied him home to Guru Harsarai, a hamlet surrounded by vast stretches of golden fields ripe with a bumper crop of wheat.
His angry neighbour Gurdeep Singh complains: “I lost nearly 20 percent of my produce to the wild boars last year. But why should wild boars matter to these netas (politicians)? What matters to them are the votes. Tell me why should I even vote for these people!”
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