Sopore: On a sunny autumn morning, hundreds of Kashmiri labourers wait patiently on either side of the road near Sopore town’s old government bus stand to get picked up for work. Most days are not equally promising for them for at least half will return home for the day without being selected. On the other hand, this autumn is turning out to be the busiest season for labourers who have travelled into Kashmir from other states of India.
There are people of all professions here. In a few minutes, I met painters, carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians and labourers from other professions. Many have travelled from different parts in and around northern Kashmir’s Sopore district; the one thing they all have in common for half the month is uncertainty.
Nazir Ahmad, 35, a labourer by profession, is a resident of Adipora village of Sopore and has to support a family of his old parents, wife and two kids. As he told Kashmir Reader, “I come every early morning in search of work but some days I get picked up and some days not. In earlier times, there was no day when we would not have found work, but after the rapid influx of foreign workers [whom he referred to as Biharis] for the last few years, we Kashmiri labourers are struggling to find wage work on a daily basis.”
One by one, people in search of labourers arrive at the bus stand. Labourers crowd around them. “People scout around for half-an-hour, carefully examine people and then pick depending on the labourers’ age, strength and line of work,” said Ahmad. By 10 am, as it becomes clear that there is no more work for the day, the remaining labourers chat for a while and then leave for their respective homes.
Ghulam Nabi, 42, a mason and a resident of Hatishah, Sopore, refuses to work for anything less than Rs 800 a day. As he explained to Kashmir Reader, in present times, everything is expensive, from a pencil for a kid to daily things for a family. Compared to that, Rs 800 is nothing, he said, “but after foreign workers have set foot in Kashmir, nobody is ready to pay us what we demand as these outsiders work for Rs 400 to 500 a day, which makes trouble for us as everyone hires the outsiders because of their cheaper rate. The irony is that they have learnt every kind of work over here, from labouring to crop cultivation in the fields.”
As the autumn season is marked with crop cultivation and apple harvesting, the work which only Kashmiri people were trained to do is now turning out to be a source of the most lucrative jobs for foreign workers.
Mohammed Rafi Malik, 40, an NHPC employee and a landlord of many kanals of land in Achabal area of Baramulla district, told Kashmir Reader, “I usually hire people from Bihar for cultivation of my crop and apple harvesting as they charge less money than Kashmiri labourers and are honest in their work.”
When asked why he prefers outsiders over Kashmiri workers who know their trade better, he replied, “I have eight kanals of cultivation land, on which eight Biharis finished work in two days. But if I hire Kashmiri labourers, they would spend almost five days finishing the same work and would charge me more. Isn’t it sensible to hire outside labour instead of Kashmiris?”
Of the crew working on Malik’s land, Sanjay, 18, told Kashmir Reader that he is from Khatyar village of Patna. “I have been coming to Kashmir for the last seven years for daily wage work and now I can do every work here. We stay here from March to November and then leave to Punjab for work.
“We like to work in Kashmir as the weather is pleasant and the people here are very polite. Beyond that, we get to earn a good amount of money here too,” Sanjay said.
Fruit businessman Imtiyaz Ahmad, 43, of Saidpora village, Sopore, had the same story to share. “I always prefer outside workers over Kashmir labourers as they demand less money and work more than Kashmiris do.”
Manzoor Hussain, 23, hails from Dumka village in Jharkhand state. Having cleared his 12th standard examinations, he was forced to drop his studies as work in his village started disappearing. He started coming to Kashmir after that and now works in Imtiyaz Ahmad’s orchards with four other Jharkhand workers.
“A stomach burning with hunger is the worst thing,” he says. Manzoor eventually got married and currently travels between Kashmir and Punjab for work, supporting his wife and old parents.
“I came here first in 2009, and my first daily wager job was vegetable harvesting. I found it easy and slowly I started doing every work. Working in Kashmir is good as the weather is lovely and people treat us well and pay us more than people do in our own state,” Manzoor said.
Manzoor now knows vegetable farming, apple harvesting, crop cultivation and many other trades, for which he earns Rs 500 to 600 a day. He stays for four to five months a year in Kashmir, leaving for his home when winter is close.
“I brought many friends from Jharkhand to Kashmir in search of work, and all of them like to work in Kashmir now,” Manzoor said.
While outside workers enjoy a busy autumn in Kashmir, for local labourers getting by month to month is a continuous struggle.