By Sameer Showkin Lone
Srinagar, Jan 25 (IANS/ 101Reporters) 'Agar sarkar nahi, toh khud sahi,' (If the government doesnt, well do it), say Faizan, Sahil, Danish and Zahid, a group of cricket-loving teenagers in Heff, a populous and restive village in Jammu and Kashmir's Shopian district. They, along with other local youth, adopted this mantra after a two-year-long struggle with the local bureaucracy to get a cricket ground constructed in their village.
The cricket-loving teens in Heff pooled in their pocket money to raise Rs 10,000, which they used to lay a 22-yard cement pitch in the plot of land identified for the playground and purchase nets and other equipment.
'The government is staking tall claims of making big investments to improve sports infrastructure at every gram panchayat but it has failed us here in Heff,' Sahil, a Class-12 student, told 101Reporters. He hopes to make a career for himself in cricket and having access to a cricket ground in his village is crucial to this dream.
Heff, home to around 3,000 people and located near the banks of river Rambi Ara, is like any other cricket-crazy village in the Valley. During the bone-chilling winter months when there is nothing much to do, the villagers, mainly apple farmers, hit the playground to warm themselves up. Inter-village tournaments and local premier leagues are huge crowd-pullers. Even the Army, J&K Police and the civil administration organise local cricket tournaments.
In recent years, these inter-village or zonal cricket tournaments have produced cricketers such as Umran Malik, Abdus Samad and Parvez Rasool who have gone on to play in the big leagues, including for the national team. This is has spurred local youth to demand better facilities in their villages.
In fact, after a number of youth groups approached the government demanding sports infrastructure in their villages, the Shopian district administration had announced the construction of 100 playgrounds in various gram panchayats.
Shopian Deputy Commissioner Sachin Kumar Vaishya had said that the district administration was planning to construct at least one playground in each gram panchayat wherever land is available. 'The process to identify land for this purpose is on,' he was quoted as saying.
In September last year, the Union Government allotted Rs 200 crore for large-scale development of sports infrastructure in the union territory, ostensibly in an effort to divert young minds from militancy and narcotics. Shopian is, of course, a volatile district, with Heff particularly infamous for losing many young men to militancy in the past decade.
Despite all these factors at play, the local administration is not moving fast enough for the boys. They worry about the complications that have now arisen. There is an alleged land dispute over the allotted plot and the funds that were sanctioned to implement this project 'on priority' has been diverted without explanation.
Youths blame it on babus
Ahmed Shabir, one of the youths in Heff campaigning for the playground, said that they had appealed to the district administration more than a dozen times since 2020 and made several representations to the office of the deputy commissioner. But Heff still doesn't have a playground and he and his fellow cricket-enthusiasts have to travel to other villages and even to far-off places such as Anantnag and Srinagar to play matches.
(Left) Documents accessed by 101Reporters show an amount of 4.8 lakhs sanctioned by the district administration to the BDO for the playground in Heff; (Right) The application submitted by the boys in the village to the District Magistrate seeking to expedite the construction of the playground (Pictures courtesy of Sameer Showkin Lone)
Documents related to the playground project in Heff, accessed by 101Reporters, revealed that the office of the Shopian district development commissioner directed Chitra Gam Block Development Officer (BDO), Jahid Azad, on August 28, 2020 to start work on the ground 'on priority basis'.
Following this, the BDO on October 30, 2020, sanctioned Rs 4.8 lakh under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for the project. However, the work never took off.
'We had shown the officials a plot of land where they could construct the playground. It was a piece of government land (Khacharai). We do not know why the project has not started till date,' said a youth in the village.
The local Patwari (the officer responsible for maintaining land records of a village) told 101Reporters that he had visited the village in September and October 2021 to demarcate the land for the playground. He claimed that the work could not be started because of resistance from a few local residents. 'It is a government land, but there are some issues,' he said, refusing to divulge what the issues were.
The land identified for the playground which, according to the Patwari, is involved in a dispute. But the villagers deny this
However, youths in Heff disagreed with the Patwari's claim, and at any rate, said that the government has the authority to clear encroachments from its lands. 'If the administration is willing, it can construct the playground. Why can't they do it here when it is being done in the neighbouring villages? We also do not know what happened to the funds sanctioned for this playground,' said Faizan, a local cricket player.
'Our village has other large patches of land suitable for the purpose, but the file is stuck at the local administration. The plot identified for the playground is government land. What is holding the officials back when all required orders have been issued?' questioned another youth.
BDO downplays diversion of funds
Azad, the BDO, initially tried to downplay the matter in a series of tweets, saying: 'There is no such file in office' and 'BDO isn't a sanctioning authority'. However, he quickly corrected his words: 'The work was of the last year. As per the reports of the then officials, the work could not be executed due to land dispute, although the then Tehsildar intervened as well but people of Pulwama claimed it as their own (sic),' he tweeted. The BDO, in another tweet, also said that in order to avoid 'spillover' (lapse of funds), the rural development department spent the money for constructing a playground in the neighbouring village Chillipora.
However, the villagers of Heff rejected the BDO's claim, saying that the playground at Chillipora was constructed around 10 years ago, and only some surface levelling work was done in 2021.
'How can a fund sanctioned for one project be spent at another without any information? Besides, if the fund was diverted in the previous year, why did the Patwari visit the village and take measurements of the land identified for the playground in October 2021?' asked Mohd Ashraf, another local youth.
'We have no facility for recreation or practising our favourite sport after our studies. Some of us are good at cricket, but where will we practice?' he lamented, saying they have no success despite so much struggle. The boys had earlier written an application to the Moulvi who conducts Friday prayers in their village and are now planning to meet Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha to seek his intervention into the matter.
(The author is a Jammu and Kashmir-based freelance journalist and a member of 101reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)