‘Can never dream of a house’
SRINAGAR: From begaar (forced labour) in Dogra rule to a struggle for work opportunities, the history of working class in Kashmir is a mosaic of politics and culture. Over the eras, labourers have built the society in sweat and blood, yet they find themselves scraping for a living – market forces and conflict have taken their toll.
“Who wants to build a palace. But a small house is not too much to ask for,” said Mohammad Rajab Bhat, 63, a labourer who works in Batamaloo bus station in Srinagar.
Bhat, who comes to work every morning at 9, echoes the feelings that a lot of labourers carry in their heart, and struggle to “express in words”. Most of these labourers, young and old, help load heavy objects on top of the buses that take passengers and goods to rural areas across Kashmir. Climbing up the steps of a ladder at the back of a bus takes grit, and more. “No one wants to do this unless you have no other way,” Bhat says. “Body aches from the wedges that this rope makes on my neck”.
Are work opportunities few and far between? “Yes,” he says. “We have no training, except for what we learn from one another”. His peer, Mushtaq Yatoo, a middle aged man from Tangmarg, adds, “I worked as a meson for some time. But I got little work because non-Kashmiri mesons asked for lesser money”. He, however, concedes that his skills did not match the migrant labourers that came from different north Indian states.
The influx of migrant labour, labourers say, narrows down work opportunities for them. “From carpenters to mason, and hair dressers to landscapers, they have taken over every work space,” says Bhat.
In Kashmir University, daily wager Mohammad Yousuf of Ganderbal has been moving the lawns or eight years. “I am paid rupees 150 a day,” he says. Fumes from the mechanized lawn mower interrupt him. He takes a pause, coughs up phlegm, before he can continue. He says he has been working at the university for the past 8 years. He is waiting to get a regular job at the university before he can marry. “I have lost all hopes, but I am helpless,” Yousuf adds.
To the lack of opportunities in industry and service sector, conflict adds a new dimension. With each death of the main bread earners in a family, a student has to drop out of school to take over. With three unmarried sisters and an unemployed younger brother, Abdul Rasheed is the sole bread earner of the family. He says his father died few years back when he was a student. Now, he is the head of family.
“I earn 6000 rupees a month. How can that suffice for a family of 5?” Rasheed says. “I am not sure how I can plan my sisters’ marriage”. He says his sisters embroider cloth, which helps him meet the ends. “But none of what we earn is enough for marriage. A house is only a dream,” Rasheed echoes what Bhat told Kashmir Reader at the bus stand.