“Balh”, is a pahadi connotation referring to flat land in the local dialect of Himachal Pradesh. It is also the name of the area in Mandi district, where an international airport is proposed and an unequivocal resistance is built by the residents of the region. They demand that an airport should not be made in one of the most fertile lands of the state. Why?
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 state is from Mandi district and is a very ardent advocate of this project. However, the reasons for opposing include ecological, social, economic and all of them are linked to the sustainability of the livelihoods of the people living in that region.
Before trying to understand the project, it is better to trace the history of this region, especially how this land was secured after sustained struggles against the landlords and then, again saved from being converted or submerged into a lake.
The Balh area was under the Suket princely state of Mandi, a region 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 due to this movement. This region is one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the state. The water table is quite high (almost 10-15 feet) and the land is very fertile. The peasants after receiving land (through 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.
As of today, the valley is home to nearly 10,000 people and over 2,200 families. In case this international airport is made, all of them will lose their lands 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.
A larger part of HP is not suitable for agriculture as most of the landmass is rocky-mountains and forests, with forests comprising almost 67% of the terrain. Just 14% of the total land is available for agriculture. Despite the situation, large tracts of agricultural land have already been lost in the ‘national interests’ – hydro-power generation and construction of large dams, which submerged the best of agricultural land in the state.
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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. A few of them who were sent to Rajasthan, however, had to come back bare handed. Nearly 1 lakh hectare of land was taken over, out of nearly 6 lakh hectare ploughable land in the state in these projects. Then with expansion of four-lane roads and laying of transmission towers, more land was acquired from the farmers. In such a backdrop, securing land is a very important issue for the small peasants in the state, as they will lose their livelihood otherwise.
Interestingly, the Balh valley, in the initial proposal of Beas Satluj link (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 Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Tulsi Ram from Balh (1972-77), the proposal had to be shelved and thus the land was saved.
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.
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Not only that, almost 12 hectares of the demarcated protected forest will be cut down which is a centuries-old forest and is home to different species of trees and other flora. This acquisition is in a way violation of the Land Acquisition Act- 2013, which states that multi-crop sowing land should not be acquired for non-agri purposes.
The main purpose of the airport will still remain defeated. To make it functional for landing large aircraft will not be possible, 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 of more than 75% dalit population and 20% OBCs. 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.
The peasants 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 under the banner of ‘Balh Bachao Kisan Sangharsh Samiti’.
A successful human chain was also organised recently by the peasants of the region. People from various section of the society, including social and political activists need to extend their support to the demand of the agitating people of Balh valley, to effect the change in the proposal of the government.
The author is former deputy mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Views are personal.