Jammu: Five days ago, when a shell landed on the railing of his terrace, Ashwani was terrified. A resident of border outpost, Karol Mathna village in Hiranagar area of Jammu’s Kathua district, Ashwani huddled up in his bed with his wife and children chanting prayers. He recalled that it was around 2:30 AM and everyone was fast asleep when suddenly they heard a snapping sound.
“We were so frightened that we couldn’t dare to step out to check where exactly the shell had fallen,” he said. The next morning local police came, recorded the damage, asked for details and left.
Ashwani said that since the COVID-19-induced lockdown, things have turned difficult for the border dwellers. “There are no more transitory camps because of the fear of COVID-19. Earlier, an entire village used to live in these camps and spend a few nights and days till the shelling stopped. Now, with no available camps, the risk to our lives is huge,” he added.
Bunkers, mostly underground, constructed in the border areas of Jammu division, are safe shelters built to protect the lives of people from shells and other explosives. Normally, the Army announces the expected timing of the commencement of shelling to the villagers, who would hide in these bunkers until told otherwise.
The border dwellers are expected to inhabit the bunkers till the shelling doesn’t end. Thus, for longer durations, proper ventilation is required in bunkers so that people can survive for hours together.
However, Ashwani said he has never spent an entire day in the bunker because of poor/no ventilation. “If not shelling, a person would die of suffocation in these bunkers,” he said.
Another resident of the same village, Barinder Dogra, lamented that the bunkers constructed to provide them safety are filled with rainwater due to the “faulty” and “substandard” construction.
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In the last one week, with shelling on the international border becoming frequent, the frightened residents are on the lookout for safer avenues but they say that nobody is letting them in because of the fear of COVID transmission. The spread of novel coronavirus coupled with ill designed, waterlogged bunkers are keeping the lives of border dwellers in Jammu at a perpetual risk.
Not just that, the water-drenched bunkers are also home to deadly snakes doubling the risk. The border residents feel that their plight is not being heard by the government officials who always give a perfunctory nod whenever an alarm is raised for help. “Whenever an official visits our village and we villagers tell them about our problems what we hear in reply is Kar rahey hai kaam, jald theek karva denge (we are doing the work, will get it finished soon),” said Ashwani.
On August 23 night, Rattan Chand, Chairman of Border Welfare Committee, Hiranagar, stood beneath the safe corner of his room with his family members standing against other guarded corners to protect themselves. Chand said that the villagers over time have identified safe quarters in the house where the risk of shells falling is lesser.
“With frequent power cuts and water-drenched bunkers or morchas, it becomes difficult to go inside the bunker. Last week, DC Kathua visited the village and we informed him about our problems but nothing has happened,” said Chand.
Chand told NewsClick that those villagers who can afford are renovating bunkers with their own money as the government has not paid any heed. “But those who can’t, are left to die,” he added.
NewsClick tried reaching DC Kathua, OP Bhagat, but couldn’t get through.