Sikh children shout slogans in front of the Kartarpur Gurdwara Sahib after a ceremony for the Kartarpur Corridor in Kartarpur on November 28, 2018. (Photo by ARIF ALI / AFP)

Despite heightened tension between the two neighbors after recent aerial strikes by India on terrorist camps in Pakistan, the proposed cross-border, visa-free Kartarpur corridor between the two countries remains on track. However bigger hurdles are facing the corridor, as farmers who will be displaced due to the project seek commercial prices for land surrendered.

The Kartarpur corridor will let Sikh pilgrims from Gurdaspur district in India’s Punjab directly access the Gurdwara Dera Sahib Kartarpur Sikh temple and shrine located in Kartarpur, Pakistan. But the creation of the corridor will mean the displacement of around 220 families of farmers on the India side. The farmers argue that without sufficient compensation they will be left distraught, as they will lose their traditional livelihood along with the land.

So far, Lakha Singh of Pakhoke village in Gurdaspur district of Punjab state is the only farmer who has given away his 16.5 acres of land to the government. Only after this happened was the construction of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) by the Land Port Authority of India able to be started on March 19 at the Dera Baba Nanak shrine near the Gurdwara. Singh will be compensated once the land acquisition rates are fixed by the government.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, assembled a Sikh community in Kartarpur and lived there for 18 years until his death in 1539. This makes a visit to Kartarpur a holy pilgrimage for members of the Sikh community. The upcoming corridor is meant to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims visa-free access to the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev.

India’s Border Security Force (BSF) has set up a post at Dera Baba Nanak town where devotees can see the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur through binoculars from the Indian side.

Bhua Singh, 74, is one such daily visitor to the post. He is also a farmer whose three acres of land has been identified by the government as needed for construction of the holy corridor. But even as the authorities are yet to decide on compensation levels, he is clamoring for higher compensation.

Higher market rates

Singh said, “We also want that a corridor that connects us directly with the shrine dedicated to our first Guru be constructed, but what will we do when we give away our land [for] a lower price?”

He added the government must ensure that the future of farmers who give their land for the construction of the corridor is not ruined, and that they must be compensated appropriately.

Many farmers who are protesting believe that a rate of 2.5 million rupees per acre could be given to them for land in three villages, Jaurian, Chandu Nangal and Pakhoke, for construction of the corridor. While the government collector rate in these villages is around Rs 300,000 per acre, farmers often get much more than this on the open market. The huge difference between the market rate and government compensation underlines the farmers’ distress.

According to the sub-divisional magistrate of Dera Baba Nanak, Gursimran Singh Dhillon, nearly 111 acres of land has to be procured for construction of the corridor as well as for the road that will lead up to the zero line on the border. “[The] names of nearly 220 families, including 450 individuals, who own the required land have been sent to the higher authorities. We have asked these individuals to submit objections if any. The rate of compensation will be announced in the coming days as we are finalizing the claims by these farmers now,” said the officer.

Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer from Jauriyan village, who has one acre of land, said the authorities suddenly brought heavy machinery on March 19 and caught farmers unaware. “Land is the only source of income for the farmers that we till and sow crops. Even if we are awarded compensation of [2.5 million rupees per acre], what will farmers like me do who have only one acre of land?” questioned Singh.

He said, however, local officials of the district administration have held meetings with them and asked them to submit their objections and suggest the land rates they want.

Since the inception of the idea, the corridor has remained mired in controversy. When Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the swearing-in ceremony of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, he was reportedly told by Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa that Pakistan was considering opening up the religious corridor. The issue later became the epicenter of a political slugfest after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party vied to claim credit in the Sikh community for opening up the corridor.

Religion vs livelihood

Sarbajit Singh, 74, another farmer in Dera Baba Nanak, says connecting this side of the border with Kartarpur in Pakistan and compensating the farmers are different issues. “The government is trying to emotionally blackmail the farmers in the name of religion and wants us to give our land at throwaway prices. There were reports that the farmers had agreed to give their land at [2.5 million rupees] per acre to the government but these are false. We want a much higher price for our land as we will be left with no other income without our fields,” he said.

Real estate dealers say that land rates have sky-rocketed in the area since the announcement of the Kartarpur corridor, which will draw domestic and international tourists to the area. Real estate agent Rakesh Kumar says that an acre of land in the Dera Baba Nanak area that earlier cost 1.4-1.6 million rupees is now worth 3.5-3.8 million rupees.

In the meantime, technical teams from both India and Pakistan are holding regular talks so that the corridor is aligned correctly on both sides of the border. However, construction on a stretch of nearly 20 feet of no-man’s land between India and Pakistan, is yet to be decided upon by both sides. The corridor is supposed to be built before November this year ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev.

Punjab minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa sees no hurdles in the construction of the corridor. “A farmer has volunteered and given his land for construction of [the] ICP and I hope that others would also follow suit. Very soon, construction of the road for the corridor will also start,” he claimed. Land Port Authority of India’s manager Sukhdev Kumar is also confident that his team will complete the work for the ICP before Guru Nanak Dev’s birth anniversary.

The farmers, however, are the ones who stand to lose. The same problem has taken root on the Pakistan side; all 600 people of the village Kothay Khurd, where Gurdwara Dera Sahib Kartarpur is located, have been ordered to give up their land and vacate their ancestral homes. They have decided to block the project if they are not paid for their land at commercial rates.

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