Kashmir Dispatch 3 | It’s Peak Season Holiday for 20,000 Outstation Labourers in Valley and They Aren’t Celebrating it
It is late evening. The lawns of Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar is unusually crowded. It looks like a busy railway platform of a North Indian city. The scene stands in total contrast to the rest of the Valley where curfew-like restrictions continue for the sixth consecutive day.
Hundreds of labourers from other states have assembled at the TRC. They are waiting for the buses to take them home. Officials don’t disclose the exact figures, but according to different estimates, around 20,000 labourers have already left the Valley. Apparently, for the first time ever, non-local labourers are fleeing the Valley in such large numbers following the decision of Union government to scrap article 370—which conferred special status to J&K—and split the state into two Union Territories.
The government had earlier issued advisories, asking tourists to curtail their visit and leave the Valley, besides cancelling the annual Amarnath pilgrimage.
Most of these labourers come from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to work in Kashmir as carpenters, masons, construction workers, painters and to perform other manual labour. “It is for the first time that I am leaving Kashmir in the middle of working season,” said Mohammad Ammar (40), who hails from Araria district of Bihar and who has been working in Kashmir for the last 19 years as a painter.
Most of the labourers arrive in spring season and leave towards the end of autumn. Some of them even stay through the harsh winter of the Valley. Kashmir relies heavily on this workforce. The symbiotic relationship has helped the labourers live in the Valley through thick and thin but the recent political measures have become source of worry for them. “We were going about our business carefree and then we heard that labourers are leaving the Valley in haste,” Ammar said. “We also decided to go home.”
Ammar is worried about his family. Due to communication blockade he has not been able to contact his family back home. “Staying here even in this situation is not an issue but my family has no idea about my well-being and they would be worried.”
Even during the 2016 unrest Ammar did not leave. That year he spent Eid in Srinagar. A day later Kashmir erupted in protest following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani. Ammar walked 40km on foot to Barsu village of Pulwama where he worked and stayed. “That time situation was tense but the family where I worked helped me make calls to my family on their landline regularly.”
These labourers would prefer working in Kashmir. “The climate here is pleasant and we get better wages compared to other states,” said Taj ud Din, Ammar’s colleague. On an average day, Taj earns about Rs 1,000. “I manage to save and send Rs 15,000 to home every month.”
The labourers are worried and uncertain about their future in Kashmir. They have not been able to comprehend the constitutional changes in Kashmir, which led to the blockade. “People tell us here that we will now be able to buy land,” Ammar says. “But they don’t understand that labourers can’t afford to make their ends meet let alone buy property.”
It is a challenge for men like Taj to find work once they reach home. “This is peak season here. We don’t know how we will manage our expenses at home.”
Buses and taxis are waiting on the road outside. Labourers allege that TRC has been charging more than the rates fixed by authorities ever since restrictions were imposed. “Government rate is Rs 500 but the bus drivers demand double,” Taj said while tightening the strap of his bag.