A barter shop in Shopian forests lifeline to herders

A barter shop in Shopian forests lifeline to herders
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Groceries are traded here for milk and wool

SHOPIAN (RAINUOR): Some 15 kilometres deep into the woods of Sedow in Shopian, where hundreds of local and non-local herders graze their livestock, there lives a shopkeeper, Muhammad Ashraf Lone, a resident of Sedow village, who sells almost everything the herders need for their very survival.
Ashraf not only sells the herders goods but also buys milk from them, from which he prepares ‘Khoya’, a raw material used in the preparation of different kinds of sweets. The 20-km path to his shop winds through dense forests and green meadows, a difficult route to take, far beyond vehicular movement, but its scenic beauty is breathtaking, with no traffic noise or mobile network or any forces’ camp, and once you reach there, you would not be ready to return.
Ashraf told Kashmir Reader that he has been doing this job for a decade. “I have this business on partnership with my elder brother, who sees to another shop almost 30 kilometres from Sedow village, and it too is without any transportation facility,” he said adding that this business fetches them Rs 3 lakh a season, starting with the advent of April and ending by the close of September.
Ashraf said that he doesn’t take money from the people who buy goods from him but he takes wool and milk from them. “They borrow these goods till the end of the season, and those who have sheep used to give me wool, and those who graze buffaloes used to give milk,” he added.
He has also hired two men for preparing Khoya. Among the hired men is 50-year-old Munshi Gojar, who said that Ashraf pays him Rs 10,000 per month and takes care of everything he needs, like food and shelter. Munshi said he is a resident of Check-Amshipora village of Shopian.
Speaking of the requirements of his work, Ashraf said that they used to prepare five to ten tons of Khoya per season. “Every second day, we take Khoya on horses to Sedow, and on our return, we bring goods for the shop. We used to sell this Khoya to a businessman based in Maisum (Srinagar), who prepares sweets like Barfi from it,” says Ashraf while adding that he buys milk at the rate of Rs 30 per litre and sells Khoya at Rs 200 a kilogram, prepared from four to five litres of milk after hours of intense boiling. Ashraf has almost 150 regular customers among the herders, who always buy the products they need from him.
Muhammad Iqbal Chichi, a non-local herder who used to come to the Rainuor forest area each year to raise his buffaloes, said that he has been coming there for the last 20 years, ever since his father expired. “Ashraf for us is like the angel of food. Before him, we used to buy goods from Sedow while spending a whole day or sometimes two to get there, but when he opened this shop here, we now have to walk only four to five kilometres. He also buys milk from us, and even we need the money he gives us,” said Iqbal who met this reporter at Ashraf’s shop when he was there to buy some food items and soap.
Asraf sells almost everything the herders need for survival, which includes rice, sugar, tea leaves, salt, ropes, polythene sheets, soap, mustard oil, batteries for radios and torch lights and several other products. Munshi said they use horses to carry goods from Sedow to Rainuor. They visit their homes once a month, where Ashraf has orchards to look after; he also has a family of 11 members including six daughters and elderly parents.
Munshi said that they often see wild animals in these forests, and none of them has ever attacked them. “We have seen lion, tiger, bear and several other animals and they too see us, but neither do they attack us nor do we interfere with them because we know this place is first theirs, then ours,” he said.
The main source of water for Veshaw Nalla, which goes through Kulgam, comes from these forests, and the famous spring of Kousar Nag is situated on the other side of the mountain pass, which is still covered with snow. Almost 50 tents of herders were at the bottom of that hill pass, and some live on the centre of this hill, grazing their cattle and sheep.
Another owner of livestock, Muhammad Subhan Wagay, said that when he was young, he had to walk a long distance to get food items, but Ashraf’s shop turned into a ray of hope for the people of the area.