Withered in hope

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Individuals have been carrying out menial jobs at literal peanuts for decades on the hope that one day their services will be formally regularised by the state government. Umar Khurshid meets interesting people with not so interesting stories in south Kashmir

Nawaz was barely 18 when he got a sweeper’s job in Islamabad’s district hospital. His aunt Zareena Banoo 45, helped him get the job. She was already sweeping the hospital clean.

A resident of Chagama Kokernag, Nawaz was a student of the tenth class. “We were economically not doing well so I quit the school and joined the job,” Nawaz said. “I started as an outsource sweeper.”

Now 26, he is sweeping the hospital. Walking through the corridor of the hospital, he shows the toilets, washrooms, emergency, and the in-patient wards, which he has been sweeping for last nine years. But the hard labour did not pay him even a fraction of it. Initially, the hospital paid him Rs 1000, a month. Then it was increased to Rs 1500. “After several protests within the hospital premises, sweepers now get Rs 2500 per month now,” he said.

This paltry sum is too little for an individual to even survive on a single meal. But Nawaz has a family to take care of. He shares half of single storey mud-and-brick house with five other family members including his labourer father Abdul Rehman Sheikh. The other half is with his uncle. “My father is unwell for most of the time and the entire responsibility is on my shoulders,” Nawaz said. “It is very difficult to survive with this small amount of money.”

“Had I opted to become a mason or or a carpenter, I would have been a master in my own field,” Nawaz said. “Even if I get minimum wages, I would still make double of what I get.” He said his father is unwell but still when he goes to work occasionally, he earns more than what his son gets home a month.

For Rs 2500, he moves 24 km up and down daily!

Nawaz’s colleague is Zareena Banoo, 45, a resident of Janglat Mandi, a locality not far away from the hospital. She is his senior and she has worked for 12 years, so far.

Zareena is the main bread-earner of her family. Her husband Manzoor Ahmed Sheikh has a serious kidney problem. He stays home most of the times. “I and my daughter save Rs 1000- per month for his medicines,” says Zareena.

Zareena has two daughters Ulfat Manzoor 22, who is handicapped, and Bilory Jan 25.  Bilory studied in Government Middle School, Nazuk Mohalla, Janglat Mandi. Conditions at home forced her to stop schooling. Instead, she works as a cook in her school. “It is very hectic to manage our daily life,” Zareena said. “Me and my daughter pool our income and half of it goes to the medicines.”

The hospital’s cleanliness and the hygiene are being managed by a group of people who apparently are the most underprivileged. Razia and Sabia are sisters, of 22 and 18 years of age. They also live in

Janglat Mandi. Both were going to school, once upon a time. They left studies in between and got into the sweeping work, as they lacked cushions and support. They are part of the seven member families headed by their father, a man whose mental state is shaky and unfit. They have three brothers. Ishfaq, the elder of the two is 21 years old but he is unable to work because he has a hole in his heart. Their two brothers Aakash and Zahid are minors, of eight and five years of age. “We had two choices, either to send the mother to work or take over the responsibility, so we choose the latter one,” the two sisters said.

Hospital waste is always a different kind of crisis for health workers. Last time, Razia got a serious chest infection. Despite working in the hospital, she had to borrow Rs 4500 to treat herself. She still has an infection. Now mucus is coming out of her ears. Despite working in a district level hospital, she did not get any compensation or help. “From ward sweeping to bathroom cleaning we put our health at risk,” Razia said. “The risks taken by doctors are praised, ours is not even being acknowledged, even though we too are working in the service of people.”

These sweepers in the district hospital are led by Mushtaq Ahmed, a 28-year-old man. His colleagues say he is always trying to help but nobody has taken his campaign for minimum wages seriously. There are even cases in which some of the sweepers have not been paid for many months. “No authority is there to look after the sweepers who pass their nights in inhuman conditions only to wake up early and keep the hospital clean,” Mushtaq said. “We work for 365 days but we are not being taken seriously by the government.”

But these “underdogs” are not the only “species” in the government’s health cupboard. They exist in other departments as well, especially the education. Schools have in fact many grim cases of exploitation and mess.

Jana Banoo is 43, and her husband Gul Mohammad Mugloo is around 45. The couple is working as sweepers in Government High School Kanelwan since 2014.  The monthly salary of both is Rs 400 each. They have five kids and they are struggling to live.

The couple hoped what every graduate in J&K hopes once he or she gets the certificate: to get a government job. They hoped their services will become permanent soon. But what actually happened was their responsibilities changed. They were taking care of the high school. The government ordered the local primary and the Middle School also to operate from the same premises. The couple was getting Rs 800, a month to take care of one school. Now they have been given the responsibility of keeping three schools clean with the “wages” unchanged!

“How only two people can take care of three schools?” asks Jana. But nobody has an answer.

“My husband was working in the municipality, he would have been in a good post now, but he was literally betrayed by authorities,” Jana said. “Imagine if we don’t clean how will they work and where will they sit.”

A resident of Anzwalla village, Mohammad Rajab says he is 85 years old. He has been a sweeper in government Middle School, Anzwalla Islamabad for last 45 years. “I use to get Rs 125 for 25 years and with this income, I had to manage my family,” says Rajab. “Then they changed it to Rs 200 till 2000 and now I get Rs 300.”

Rajab stays in school during the night to take care of the school’s property. He sweeps the entire school and even prepares tea, washes cooking utensils, daily.

Rajab lives in a mud house with his son in law Gulzar Ahmed 55, and his family. “My son Bashir Ahmed lives separately in the same house, and I live with my son in law,” says Rajab.

Rajab married his daughter Mufeeda, now in her fifties, to Gulzar in 1889. His son-in-law has a chronic back problem. Very recently, he became a coppersmith, set up his work place in a tin shed outside his house. Somehow, he makes around Rs 1500, a month. During the unrest of 2016, Rajab had to stay in school during nights also, though it was not his duty. Earlier in 2000, when an old school near Rajab’s house was on fire, Rajab worked for 20 days to retrieve the records. “My father risked his life, saved the year’s old record of school, but he was never compensated for it,” Mufeeda said. “It looks inhuman.”

Rajab’s normal duty is 8 am to 5 pm. “I can’t even see properly now, my eye sight is very weak now,” Rajab said. “But I am helpless.”

Ghulam Hassan Hajam 42, from Dehwatoo Village of Islamabad, is “posted” in Government High School Dahwatoo as a sweeper for 20 years. He lives in a one-storey house with his three kids and wife Haseena Banoo.

“We take care of all the property, even during nights and my wages are only Rs 200 per month,” Ghulam Hassan said.

Poverty forced his elder son to leave the school and start earning. For some time now, he is not keeping his good health. “Sometimes due to his health issues when he stays home, his wife Haseena goes to school to do his work,” his nephew Sheeraz Ahmed said. Last year during the six months of unrest, Ghulam Hassan had to stay in school for 24 hours to take care of the school’s property. “My uncle has no other source of income; with just Rs 200 per month it’s very tough to run a family.”

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