Chachwal village, J&K: India is building more than 14,000 bunkers suitable for families living along its border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, hoping to keep them safe near their homes instead of evacuating them as artillery shells scream over.
On Tuesday evening, Pakistan used heavy calibre weapons to shell 12 to 15 places along the Line of Control (LoC), a spokesman for the Indian defence forces said. The Indian army retaliated with its own shelling of the Pakistani side, he said.
That had created "panic among people", said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district, a remote area of the Indian state that faced some of the attacks.
The new shelters, which were planned before this week's spike in tensions, are supposed to reduce that fear and prevent people from having to flee when the shelling begins.
There have been frequent exchanges of fire along the LoC but Tuesday's firing marked a major escalation after India carried out an air strike on a training camp run by JeM in Pakistan. India was responding to a suicide car bombing claimed by a member of the group that killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force in Jammu and Kashmir almost two weeks ago.
As well as the shelling, Pakistan retaliated on Wednesday by carrying out airstrikes on the Indian side of the border.
India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
STEEL AND CONCRETE
Villagers on the Indian side of the border said they were tired of fleeing their homes when outbreaks of firing erupt. Some have seen family members killed and the cost of leaving behind their cattle and crops is too heavy for many poor farmers.
Tanattar Singh, a frail 75-year-old man from Chachwal village, said his daughter was killed in 2002 when she was hit by a bullet just outside their house, which is surrounded by wheat fields near a watch tower.
"Firing could happen again and we know there are risks of living so close to the border," Singh said, as he and other elders watched earth being dug out for the construction of a bunker for one of the village`s 400 families. "But what can we do? We can`t leave the village for good like some rich people do."
Government engineers said work on the underground steel and concrete structures, which could cost a total of $60 million, began in June last year as relations between the nuclear-armed rivals worsened.
State government officials and contractors said hundreds of underground bunkers, with their walls and roofs three times the thickness of a regular house and consuming 10 times as much steel, have already been built.
Reuters visited nearly a dozen such bunkers, some waterlogged and constructed on farm land or next to people`s houses.
"These can withstand simple shelling," said an engineer with the Jammu and Kashmir public works department tasked with building the bunkers. The engineer declined to be named citing government rules.