Kolkata: Migrant labourers from West Bengal are fleeing to their home state from Jammu and Kashmir as five of them were gunned down by terrorists in the Valley’s Kulgam district on Tuesday.
Those who were killed have been identified as Sheikh Rafiq, Naimuddin Alam, Qamaruddin Sheikh, Mursalim Sheikh and Rafiqul Alam. Another, Baharaduddin, was critically injured and is reportedly recovering at a local hospital. All of them belong to Bahal Nagar in Bengal’s Murshidabad district and were working in Kashmir’s apple orchards.
Speaking to News18, Sheikh Miraj, one of the labourers who has returned home following another terror attack on October 24, said, “Two truck drivers were shot dead at Shopian. Since then, we were living in fear. Some of the local people suggested that we return to Bengal. The next day, 12 others and I packed our bags and came back to Murshidabad. Those who were killed were supposed to leave the Valley too.”
According to authorities, the victims were at a local resident's home when the terrorists attacked. The incident came on a day when a group of European Union parliamentarians was in Jammu and Kashmir to observe the situation there following the Centre’s decision on August 5 to scrap its special status and rearrange the state into two union territories.
When asked why he along with his friends decided to migrate to Kashmir, Miraj said, “We don’t get adequate daily wages here in Bengal as compared to other places in the country. In Kashmir, Rajasthan and other parts of north and south India, demand for skilled and unskilled labourers is very high. We get good money. Some of my friends from Malda, Murshidabad and Dinajpur are still there in Kashmir but most of them have decided to come back fearing more attacks.”
Every month, hundreds of labourers from Malda, Murshidabad, South 24 Parganas, Midnapore (East and West), Burdwan, Bankura and Purulia are hired by both registered and unregistered manpower companies and sent to various states across the country for construction-related work, farming, handicrafts and in gold ornament units.
Speaking to News18, local MLA from the Sagardighi constituency Subrata Saha of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress said, “Due to lucrative offers, these labourers from Bengal prefer to go out. Their demand is very high in the construction business across India. Every month, hundreds of workers are migrating to other states. I would like to request them all to come back to their home state as we have several schemes for their better livelihood.”
“We are also communicating with the labourers who are still there in Kashmir to come back as the situation is not good in the Valley. Some of them have already returned after scrapping of Article 370 clauses, while the rest will come back in a day of two,” he added.
To issue a travel advisory, the government has asked district administrations in Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur to prepare a fresh list of migrant labourers from the areas who are still in Kashmir.
In a string of tweets, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee expressed shock and grief over the incident, announced Rs 5 lakh in compensation for the bereaved families, and also attacked the BJP-led central government while demanding a “strong investigation”.
"In a most unfortunate incident in Kashmir yesterday, five innocent labourers were brutally killed in a pre-planned manner. We are totally shocked! Presently there are no political activities in Kashmir and entire law and order is with the Government of India," she said.
Banerjee tasked a senior Bengal police officer to coordinate and find out details about the brutal killings.
"We, therefore, demand a strong investigation so that the real truth comes out. We are deputing Shri Sanjay Singh ADG South Bengal to find out details from them," she said in a tweet.
It’s been learnt that at least 60 labourers from these districts are still stuck in the Valley as they are yet to receive payments from their respective employers.
Murtaza Hussain, whose elder brother Imtiaz work in a carpet manufacturing unit in Kashmir, said, “Last night I got the news of killings and conveyed the message to Imitiaz through an agent to come back home. We are worried for his safety. Last year he went to Kashmir for a better job prospect. He told us that the situation is not good in Kashmir. We want him to come back now.”
In Murshidabd, Malda, Dinajpur, Medinipur, and North and South 24 Parganas all the panchayat pradhans were asked to spread Bengal government’s Rs 50,000 scheme for migrant labourers who want to return back to Bengal to start a small business.
“The recent incidents are really a matter of concern for us. Fearing more killings, a large number of them are coming back. As per eligibility, we will help them with government schemes. My advice to the migrant labourers is that they should be in touch with the local administration in their respective states for their safety and security,” state labour commissioner Jawaid Akhtar said.
“Once I saw several labourers from Murshidabad district working in a remote place in Kargil. I was surprised and, when asked, they failed to give a clear answer on how they reached there. It is an unregulated sector and a matter of concern for us. Now we are trying to make an official database and will try to convince people in the villages not to send their children to other states without consulting local authorities,” he added.
According to statistics available, every month nearly 1,000 skilled and unskilled workers move to other states from Bengal.
When asked why this is the case, Akhtar said, “I interacted with many and most of them told me that the daily wages are higher in other states. The demand is very high in Kashmir, Kerala and northern parts of India. The reason is, in Kerala most people are migrating to the Gulf, and to fill that gap there is a high demand of skilled and unskilled workers. Similarly, in Punjab, many people move to Canada and Bengali workers are filling that space.”
“Once I interacted with a labourer and he told me that he will be able to see a new place and will be able to earn sufficiently to feed his family. He looked at that opportunity as a vacation but there are many who migrate due to distress and in search of better opportunities,” said Akhtar.
On December 6, 2017, a labourer from Bengal’s Malda district, identified as Afrazul Khan (50), was hacked to death with an axe and set on fire by civil contractor Shambhu Lal Regar in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand village.
Regar recorded the whole incident on camera. In the video, he can be seen attacking Khan with an axe and the victim is screaming for mercy. After repeated blows Afrazul dies and is set on fire by Regar.
Another migrant labourer from Bengal’s Alipurduar district was killed in Gujarat’s Ankleshwar area on December 24, 2017. The victim had been identified as Madhu Sarkar (27), a native of North Point area in Alipurduar.
At the time, a large number of migrant labourers in the two states fled, fearing more attacks, and came back to Malda, Murshidabad, Dinajpur and other districts in Bengal.