Taken for a Ride

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Elections are a complex process in Kashmir both in terms of logistics and security. Umar Mukhtar talks to drivers who risked their lives and vehicles to ferry polling staff but without any compensation

On the morning of April 19, 2014, Mushtaq, then 27, a taxi driver, reached deputy commissioner’s office in Srinagar.

At 5:30 am, personnels of polling staff along with three CRPF men, who were assigned to guard them, came out and boarded his vehicle. “They sat in the rear seat,” said Mushtaq. “I was supposed to take them to Baramulla.

Almost half-an-hour later, when Mushtaq reached Pattan, he came across around fifty youngsters who were protesting and pelting stones at government vehicles.

Before Mushtaq could have turned around, he found himself in the midst of stone-pelting youth. As protestors saw CPRF men inside the vehicle, it enraged them. “All of a sudden stones began raining on my vehicle,” recalls Mushtaq. “One stone hit me on my right arm.”

The windshield of the cab was shattered and the metallic body received innumerable dents. However, despite injury, Mushtaq didn’t stop his vehicle and continued driving.

Once Mushtaq dropped the polling staff safely at their assigned booth, he drove to Baramulla district hospital. “My arm was fractured,” said Mushtaq. “I had to wear a plaster and was advised to take rest.”

After the elections concluded Mushtaq visited Election Commission of India (ECI) office to seek compensation for his loss, as promised. “But I was made to visit office on regular basis without any luck,” said Mushtaq. “I am yet to receive a single penny as compensation.”

Ashiq, another driver who drove polling staff and CRPF men to their respective booths in Sopore town, recall how he is visiting ECI’s office regularly for compensation.  A resident of Srinagar, Ashiq was driving staff back to Srinagar after polling concluded, when he was caught in stone-pelting at Sopore. “It was very dangerous situation. I still recall how we were caught between stone pelters from all sides,” recalls Ashiq.

“I must have been caught for around 15 minutes, but if felt like entire lifetime.”

As stone-pelting intensified, Ashiq made a desperate attempt to steer past the youngsters, but a sharp curve turned his vehicle turtle. The security vehicle following them stopped quickly and rescued Ashiq and other people onboard.

“Had they not rescued us, it would have been a different story all together,” said Ashiq.

However, the security vehicle took polling staff and CRPF men along, leaving Ashiq behind with a badly injured leg.

“I had to limp all the way to the hospital in Sopore to get my wounds dressed,” said Ashiq.

Ashiq blames police officials for dragging his vehicles on the road like dead wood, damaging it further.

“They did it to make way for the traffic as my vehicle was lying in the middle of the road.”

Since then Ashiq is visiting ECI’s office on regular basis to seek compensation for damages caused to his vehicle.

Ashiq had to visit almost half-a-dozen offices to get documentary proof to prove his vehicle was damaged while on ECI’s duty. “I had to even prove that I was injured in the same incident,” said Ashiq.

Ashiq’s sole source of income comes from his vehicle, which incurred damages worth over Rs 75,000 during election duty.

“It took me fifteen days to repair my vehicle,” said Ashiq. “I have submitted all bills to the ECI but so far I got nothing.”

Ashiq now feels he risked his life and property all for nothing. “If people in my locality will come to know that I have ferried polling staff, I will be excommunicated,” said Ashiq. “And see how we are treated by officials. I have already shown them FIR and other proof.”

Ashiq has since sold his vehicle and left driving completely. “I am pursuing my case now.”

Nazir, 32, who drives a mini bus, was caught in stone-pelting while ferrying polling staff back to their base camp. Two years on, Nazir has to take a day off to visit ECI’s office to check the status of his application for compensation. “I literally live on whatever I earn. A day without work means a day without food for me,” said Nazir. “Why it is taking so long to pay what is rightfully ours. They made promises before hiring our vehicles.”

On April 09, after the polling was over, Irshad drove polling staff back from Pulwama to Srinagar. Once they reached Kakapora, they took a right turn, instead of taking the slightly longer route via Marval village.

“Once we reached Samboora village, we were caught in the midst of stone-pelters,” said Irshad.  “Before I could have made sense of what was happening all the glasses of my vehicles were smashed with rods and sticks.”

The incident left Irshad with multiple injuries – three stitches in his head and a fracture in right elbow. “I was bed ridden for about two months,” Irshad. “My vehicle too was damaged completely.”

Irshad approached ECI’s office with an application seeking compensation for the loss he suffered while ferrying polling staff.  “They told us to claim insurance for the losses. But I have third party insurance, how can I ask stone-pelters to compensate my losses,” Irshad said.

Irshad asks who will compensate his loses as nobody at the ECI office is ready to won him. “Once the job is done, they simply turn their backs at us,” blames Irshad. “Who will pay for my medical expenses or medicines?”

Irshad, who lives in Budgam, feels drivers like him are often in a dilemma as they have to choose between livelihood and sentiments. “If we drive them (poling officials and CRPF) we are seen as traitors, but if we don’t, we will end up starving our families,” said Irshad.

Irshad purchased his taxi by taking a loan from a local bank, but without compensation he is struggling to pay installments. “My monthly expenses including installment is around Rs 20,000,” said Irshad. “How am I supposed to manage my family?”

Irshad is skeptic about his future as debts mount and bank officials are reluctant to offer him more time. “I don’t want to turn into a defaulter,” said Irshad. “Why are we risking our lives for if they don’t even pay us our dues?”

Irshad and other transporters like him allege ECI and government forces of pressuring them for such special assignments. “We don’t have an option to say no else we will have to face consequences,” blames a taxi stand operator.

Even the rates agreed before hiring a vehicle are not given later, alleges another transporter. “We get just a fraction of what is promised,” said Aijaz Ahmad, General Secretary, Kashmir Transporters Welfare Association.

During 2014 elections around 2500 vehicles from Srinagar were hired by the ECI, out of which more than a thousand got damaged. “About 130 drivers also got injured during the same,” said another member of the association.

However, the Chief Electoral Office, Srinagar, terms drivers demand as naïve. “As per ECI guidelines there are no such provisions to compensate them. Still we had requested concerned authorities in Delhi who turned our requests down saying these drivers can claim insurance.”

But, in a complex place like Kashmir, even getting insurance money for such cases is not an easy job, feels Irshad.

 

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