Pulwama: On the busy Srinagar-Jammu highway, next to the Pampore saffron fields, Raju, 12, works ceaselessly, toiling all day in rain and sun to put an end to his poverty. He squats for hours weaving coarse date leaves into finished and beautiful brooms that later go to Valley’s length and breadth.
Originally from Rajasthan, Raju has travelled hundreds of kilometres with his family to earn a livelihood from broom making. Broom makers are among Kashmir’s four lakh immigrant workers, though estimates suggest there may be at least a lakh more, with 60,000 in the Valley alone. Wages in Kashmir are comparatively high, and employers are largely kind.
Under the shadow of a tree quite near the busy road, Raju puts all his efforts into making a living. “We have come here to earn, we can’t rest” a tired Raju said as a car whizzed past the makeshift tents where he works and lives, raising huge clouds of dust in its wake.
The date leaf raw material for making brooms comes from Rajasthan and takes a good amount of effort and expertise to work with. Brooms are made in many phases, passing from hand to hand. The first step once the material arrives is for the makers to start tearing the leaves. “We do it during the night,” says Anand, Raju’s father. “It takes hours and hurts our hands. We have no option.”
Poor though they are, the broom makers take pride in their craft. Children, half-naked and with their ribs visible, are fascinated by the date leaves, despite the sharp edges that leave cuts on their hands and arms as they run with the leaves for their parents to pile into their tents. The leaves aren’t just for earning a livelihood; they are a comfort at night as they serve as ‘mattresses’ despite the painful scratches they leave on back and shoulders.
During the day, Raju’s specialty is making broom handles. His skills are profound; at his age, he works with the dexterity of an adult. To make a handle, he needs rubber rope, aluminium foil and covering, all sourced from scratch or from rag pickers. Rubber rope repurposed from truck tyre tubes is a job mostly carried out by women, who slice tyres into shreds with razor blades in the blink of an eye.
In making broom handles, Raju starts by putting one end of a rubber rope between his toes and the other between his teeth. The handle’s covering comes from fast food packaging, which Raju now wraps around the handle’s end. The rubber rope is then tied over the wrapping while concealing the sharp edges of the leaves beneath. As the handle takes shape, Raju releases the other end of the rope from between his toes, cuts it apart and knots the two ends. He then ties aluminium strips between the leaves, parting the ends like braids. “Hundred brooms a day,” he says with a frown on his face. A fine handle for another broom is complete. Loose or unwanted parts are hammered out and the broom is ready for sale.
After such a hectic process, the only meal for the broom maker is plain bread with raw onions. “Food is costly. So we only breastfeed infants. It sometimes becomes impossible for adults to get two square meals,” the mother of a visibly weak baby said.
After they eat, children help mothers in beating the brooms. Raju’s aunt Parvati uses a wooden bar with nails in it to remove the brooms hard edges and make them lighter and more spread out. She raises a broom and thuds it on the bar at least a hundred times before passing it ready to be sold to passengers on board buses and to other markets in the Valley.
Brooms are sold here at three times their price in Rajasthan, which is what brings Raju and families like Raju’s to the Valley. “In Rajasthan, a broom costs not more than Rs 10 apiece, and dealers pay us Rs 5-6 per broom. But here, they pay us Rs 14-15 on each broom,” says Anand.