A Highway Station

Shortly before the non-native workforce became news following a chain of attacks, Aaqib Hyder spent some time in Wanpoh and interacted with nativse and their guest workers

Residents in WAnpoh, the highway in south Kashmir, say they have been living in perfect harmony with the seasonal workforce that spends most of the year in Kashmir for many decades now. KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

Before the sun starts to set on Wanpoh, a small village on the Jammu Srinagar Highway, not far away from the railway station, non-natives in small groups can be seen after every few meters of the main road. After coming back from work, most of them go out to buy things or just go for a walk and for a moment it looks like a village scene from outside of Kashmir altogether.

Every year tens of thousands of workers arrive in Kashmir from neighbouring states to earn their livelihood. A huge chunk of them lands in Wanpoh because of its centrality, access to communication and work. Rented accommodations housed by non-locals can be spotted in abundance on both sides of the main road.  This influx has given the village a psudo name as well.

Birbal Ram

In September 2014, when Kashmir was devastated by the floods, Wanpoh was no exception. Birbal Ram, 62, along with his wife, eight daughters and one son was stuck on the second story of his rented accommodation in Wanpoh’s main market. As water levels started to rise alarmingly, he thought they are going to die of hunger and cold anytime soon. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that as locals in hoards came to their rescue with truckloads of food and clothes.

“Even locals whose own houses were inundated came to us with food, drinking water and clothes. Some of them even offered us to come with them to safer places,” Birbar recalled.

Ram who hails from Ferozpur city of Punjab sums up all his reasons for staying in this village in a single line – ‘Insaniyat bohut hai yahan logun main’ (People here are very kind). A shoemaker by profession, he has been coming to Kashmir since last 23 years and has been stationed in Wanpoh right from the beginning. “In the initial years, we used to live in makeshift tents on the other side of the village but after a few years we rented a room here,” he said.

All these beautiful experiences and memories of Birbal Ram are scarred with an incident, which always stays in the back of his mind. A few years ago, his relative Vijay Kumar, 20, a shoe polisher was killed in a grenade attack in Achabal, Anantnag. “My only son was also with him but he survived. His death haunted me for a long time but then it is what life is. Anything can happen here anytime,” he said.

Birbal said if he ever leaves Kashmir forever, it would be because of the absolute unpredictability of life here. “You can be just walking down the road minding your own business and still get killed or injured just like that. It is very scary,” he said.

Two Decades

Aanchi Devi, 61, from Zeeramandi has been living in Wanpoh from last more than twenty years. She has six children and four of them were born here only. For her, it is the pleasant weather and good wages that bring her here every year. Her husband Om Prakash used to work here for five years before she came here. He died after a brief illness four years ago.

“Working outside Kashmir is so tortuous and wages are way too low than what we get here in pleasant weather. In Kashmir, it is a win-win situation for us,” Devi said.

Most of the non-locals go back to their respective states in winters to evade Kashmir’s bone chilling cold but Devi has been staying in winters too for the last many years. She roams from village to village, street to street with a huge bag on her shoulders selling bed sheets and pillow cases. “Initially the cold was unbearable but now it is quite normal for me. This village is my home now,” she said.

In the highway village of Wanpoh, this is one of the main residential areas of the seasonal workforce for last many decades. KL Image: Aaqib Hyder

Akram’s Story

Near another two-story structure, which houses hundreds of non-locals, Mohammad Akram, 53, from Bihar is taking deep drags from his half-burnt cigarette. A mason for the last 15 years, he is all up in praises for the kind nature of people in the village. He was also rescued by locals during the 2014 floods.

“People treat us very nicely here, Akram said. “When my room got flooded, local youth came to my rescue and provided my food, clothes and candles. They put their lives in danger to save mine.”

Moreover, he argues that the village has an ideal location as it is connected to every village in the district and has a good marketplace too. “Our main clientele is mostly comprised of villagers and it becomes easy to access both villages and marketplace from here,” he said.

As the village is situated near the national highway, these non-locals find it easy to get a cab home and also when they come back, they don’t have to be concerned about the time they arrive because the cab drops them literally on their doorsteps.

Ghulam Hassan Dar, an elderly resident is of the opinion that these non-locals have got so acquainted with the village that it feels like their own home now and their real home outside as a hotel where they spend one or two months in a year.

“Most of them have been living here for a decade or more. They know the place and people very well and when their acquaintance or relative back home wants to work in Kashmir, they bring him here only,” Dar said.


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