JAMMU: Days after PakistanRangers violated ceasefire by targeting forward posts and villages along the International border here, the border residents have taken to cleaning underground bunkers, constructed over the years, to take shelter in.
A massive cleaning operation is underway to make the bunkers habitable, with locals demanding more such constructions to escape the cross-border shelling.
“We cannot trust Pakistan and have started a drive to clean the bunkers to make them usable,” Sarpanch, Treva village of Arnia, Balbir Kour told PTI.
India shares a 3,323 km-long border with Pakistan, of which 221 km of the IB and 744 km of the Line of Control fall in Jammu and Kashmir.
On February 25, 2021, India and Pakistan announced the implementation of a renewed ceasefire along the borders in Jammu and Kashmir, which came as a major relief to the people living along the IB and the LoC.
The two countries had initially signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003, but Pakistan frequently violated the agreement, with over 5,000 violations reported in 2020 – the highest in a single year.
To safeguard the border residents from Pakistani shelling, the Centre had in December 2017 sanctioned the construction of 14,460 individual and community bunkers in five districts of Jammu, Kathua, and Samba covering the villages located along the IB and Poonch and Rajouri villages on the LoC. The government later sanctioned additional bunkers, in excess of 4,000, for the vulnerable population.
The shelling by Pakistan Rangers, the first major ceasefire violation since 2021, started around 8 pm Thursday in the Arnia area of R S Pura sector and lasted around seven hours, leaving a BSF jawan and a woman injured.
On October 17, two BSF personnel were injured when their post came under fire from Pakistan.
Many panic-stricken people, including migrant labourers engaged in harvesting paddy, fled to safer places amid heavy firing and mortar shelling Thursday night but returned to their homes next morning after the guns fell silent.
BSF has already lodged a strong protest with their Pakistani counterparts at two flag meetings in the past 10 days, with both sides highlighting the need to maintain ceasefire in the larger interest of peace and tranquility on the border.
“After 2018, our villages were pounded with mortars but we could not use most of the bunkers as we paid no attention to their cleaning,” Kour said, appealing to the residents to maintain the bunkers like their houses.
She said the people saw the worst of times before the ceasefire came. “My concern is that the people living in this panchayat remain safe. We have 15 individual and seven community bunkers, but more bunkers are needed to cover all households who are living in the Pakistani shelling range.”
According to locals, the majority of the bunkers are inundated and thick with wild vegetation, which work as a cover for snakes and other poisonous insects. They also lack toilets and electricity.
“We have cleared almost all the community bunkers,” Prerna, a resident of ward number 5, said.
For Nirmala Devi, the Pakistani firing was her first experience of such kind. “If we keep the bunkers clean, we need not flee our villages amid shelling.”
Jammu Divisional Commissioner Ramesh Kumar, who along with a team of senior civil and police officers including Inspector General of Police, Jammu Zone, Anand Jain, visited the border villages on Saturday to assess the loss.
Not only Arnia, the border dwellers in other parts of Jammu, Samba, and Kathua, have also started cleaning security bunkers in their areas.
A delegation of National Conference led by Jammu provincial president Rattan Lal Gupta during his visit to the Pakistan-affected villages criticised the government for “not doing enough” to safeguard the border population.
“Bunkers which were constructed with much fanfare are proving to be useless as they are inhabitable due to poor maintenance and as most of these constructions have been inundated due to rain water. The public exchequer has been drained by the lethargic government in the case of bunkers as they are proving to be worthless,” Gupta said.