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Jammu and Kashmir lost four individuals to the Coronavirus and three young men to the dread of the ongoing lockdown. As people squeezed to their homes, the local workforce took dangerous routes home from Srinagar and other places to stay safe with family but fell victims of arduous paths, reports Tahir Bhat

This photograph that appeared in Jammu based newspaper Daily Excelsior shows a group of workers from Rajouri and Poonch trekking the snow-clad Mughal Road to reach home from Srinagar. Since the main highway was closed by the lockdown, they preferred trekking the 80 km distance on foot on March 31. More than 90 persons undertook the risky travel to reach home in late March 2020.

On March 31, the tensions flew around in Banihal as reports about a group of labourers trapped in snow descended the hills. Swiftly, the local police station rushed a team towards the hills overlooking the highway town. After a few hours, they returned with one person in a pretty serious condition and three body bags.

As details revealed, it shocked everybody. It was a group of seven labourers from Hinjhal village in Doligam belt. As the lockdown restricted any opportunity for work, they decided to reduce costs and go home. They were based in Verinag, separated by a hill range, from their Banihal home. They reached the tunnel from Kashmir side, as per their families, but were turned back as the lockdown was seriously implemented. Finally, they decided to trek the distance, a routine norm during peak summer.

Mohammad Arif, the Mumbai watchman who started peddling a 1200 kms distance to Rajouri to see his ailing father, was finally intercepted by CRPF in Gujarat and driven home.

In two groups – four and three, they left towards Kapran and moved right to cross a range and reach home. They had started late. Three of them started slightly early and reached home at around 11 pm. They said the four are following them. Their families were also in touch with them. They told their families that they are tired and exhausted. This led their families to prepare tea and chapattis and they left in a group to feed them ahead of their home. They ascended a hill and reached there by around 1 am in the night. They were in touch but by then the intense cold exhausted the battery of their cell phone. They returned back. Next day, they went with police and army and recovered the four from a gorge.

All the four were brought on cots by the volunteers from Banihal. As they reached the hospital, three of them – Ghulam Mohiuddin, Zubair Ahmad and Reyaz, were declared ‘brought dead’. Reyaz was a twelfth class student who had gone to earn some money during the lean period. The youngest of them, Parvaiz was breathing and doctors had to make serious efforts to revive him. He is still in shock. It was much later that Parvaiz revealed the story.

The group had started late from Verinag. As they were caught over Nagimandu heights rendered impassable by huge snow, they decided to skid down a glacier. As they did it, they failed to control at the end of it and fell deep in a pit that was fed continuously by the glacial melt. Only Parvaiz fell a few feet away from it and survived.

The youngest of the seven-member group of Banihal labourers who had a miraculous escape. Three of his colleagues were killed while taking a dangerous route home from Verinag in Kashmir through a mountain range in the first week of April 2020. Photo: Internet

This was the immediate outcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s March 24, 8 pm speech in which he gave 130 crore people four hours to get their acts together, to hoard essentials, scuttle back to their destinations, and enclose themselves to their homes. From that midnight, India would freeze for containing Coronavirus and the 21-days lockdown is still in vogue. Everything was closed the roads, buses, railways and the aircraft.

People like Banihal labourers knew they will ill-afford the station they were at that point of time. There were workers and labourers far away from their homes; sick in the hospital about to get a discharge; students coming from different places on way home and all of them were stuck in between. As they started moving against the lockdown, they hit the unimagined.

Parvaiz Ahmad, a miraculous survivor in the Banihal labour accident, admitted to the hospital. It was the young boy who gave the shocking details of the tragedy in which the hungry, thirsty and tired labourers slipped down a glacier to death in the first week of April 2020. Pic: Internet

Prime Minister did apologize later. “I apologize to the people of the country because of the inconvenience caused to them. I especially apologize to the poor and financially weaker sections who would be probably thinking that what kind of a Prime Minister is Modi,” he later said in Mann Ki Baat. Giving a day or two would have helped the poor manage their travels better.

Coronavirus: Sans Food, Kashmir Workers Stranded In Himachal Want A Home Drive

There were some people who proved luckier than Banihal trio despite the fact that they also undertook harsher treks to reach home. A huge group of 26 individuals, mostly working as seasonal labourers in Kashmir, took the snow-clad Mughal Road to reach their home in Pir Panchal Valley. They trekked a long distance between Srinagar and Thanamandi, some of them without food for four days.

Ghulam Mohiuddin, one of the three Banihal labourers who were killed in the accident on the way home while crossing the snow-clad mountain range. Photo: Internet.

Abdul Rashid, a resident of Pangai village was one of the brave 26. In fact, they were eight neighbours from the same village who were working at a plant nursery near Khayam in Srinagar. Initially, they managed for a few days but after they exhausted their savings, they decided to move home. As they moved towards Shopian, newer faces started joining them – brothers Wazir Hussain and Mohammad joined them with six others in Pulwama. In Shopian, another group of eight people joined them and the caravan left for Rajouri.

These people spent a night at Heerpora, another night at Pir Ki Gali and yet another night at Chandigarh. Some of them stayed at Poshana. The Pir Ki Gali pass was completely under snow and they trekked for about 15 km in snow. Near the Pir Gali they were joined by another group of 10 individuals, all Rajouri bound.

The group knew the topography so they had taken a lot of fuelwood on their backs from Shopian. As it would get unbearable cold, they will burn it for warmth.

Authorities heard the story and rushed and drove them straightaway to the quarantine centre set up in the Auqaf Building of the Shahdara Sharief shrine. Officials said they all have swollen feet and are suffering from dehydration. Officials said more than 90 people had come home trekking the long distance from Srinagar.

“We have more than 1200 people from Ramban working for most of the year in Kashmir,” Banihal based senior reporter, Mohammad Taskeen said. “Most of them have returned home and some had taken interesting treks to reach home.”

Reyaz Ahmad was a 12th class student who would work in Srinagar during winters to make some money. He was killed along with two others while crossing a mountain range to reach home at the peak of lockdown in early April 2020.

Taskeen said that some people who were stuck on the border of Jammu and Kashmir had taken the Ravi river bed route to reach home. “Some of them were eventually arrested and put into quarantine,” Taskeen said. “The highway is completely closed, partly because of the slides and mostly because of the lockdown.”

Some of the people who were stuck in Punjab did face problems initially. Now, I am getting calls that some political parties and the voluntary groups have started helping them, Taskeen said.

There were people caught in a situation at the wrong time. One of the most debated cases was that of Abhama resident, Nisar Ahmed Magray, whose son was discharged from AIIMSA after heart surgery and he had nowhere to go. He had already exhausted his saving in the hospital.

As his appeals went viral on the social media, PDP’s Rajya Sabha MP sent him a vehicle to drive him to the Kashmir House but nobody made a room for him. “I along with my wife and her nephew came back on foot, shattered after being disillusioned,” Nisar said. “Our child fell ill because of arduous futile travel.” Regardless of the officials in Jammu saying that the Resident Commissioner was in touch with the person, it was a good man who housed him somewhere after he spends many days in Azadpur with many other patients at a crowded place.

On February 26, Haleema Begum, 64, a resident of Baramulla was operated upon for cancer at Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre. After their chemotherapy session, they left Dehli on April 1 and successes reaching Lakhanpur, a day later where they were stopped.

Zubair Ahmad was one of the three labourers who was killed while crossing a mountain range to reach home in April 2020. Photo: Internet

The old lady was accompanied by her entire family. In Ludhiana, a Fortis Hospital doctor rang up Jammu and Kashmir government about the emergency. They were still not allowed. By then, they had spent a huge amount on transport alone. They finally were permitted on April 3, and on April they were permitted to move towards Baramulla. In between, they had to change three ambulances at a huge cost.

The small-time workers stuck in distant places faced the worst. Shabir Ahmed, 27, and Muhammad Farooq, 31, are labourers from Rajouri’s Chikhri Mandi area who spend most of the year in Himachal. As the lockdown started hitting their routine and savings, they started home on bicycles, right from Jawalamukhi district. They reached home in 7 days and landed in a quarantine facility for 14 more days.

The story of Rajouri’s, Muhammad Arif, 36, is daring. A watchman at Mumbai’s Bandra area, he got a call from his family that his father was in a critical state. With Rs 800 in the pocket, he left Mumbai on a cycle to peddle a distance of 2100 kms. Surviving on biscuits, water and lemon water, he battled hunger, thirst and an empty pocket. Arif finally was traced by CRPF in Gujarat and told him about how they airlifted his father first to Jammu and then to Punjab for treatment. After feeding him, they gave him lift in a truck to see his father.

Safe Environs

Reaching home created its own black humour. Residents of Salian village in Poonch were stuck in Jammu and were desperate to reach home. So they decided that one of them were foreign to have died and the three will hire an ambulance to reach home. They were carrying a letter that the dead body is being shifted from GMC Jammu to Baffliaz. Nobody knows if the letter was correct.

The mantra worked. They reached home, almost. A few kilometres short of their home, a policeman inspected the vehicle only to find everybody alive. They all were arrested along with the ambulance driver they had arranged from Punjab.

The government said they have ensured that no workers go to bed without food. Jammu and Kashmir, Labour Commissioner Abdul Rashid Var said they provided 143866 construction workers RS 14.36 crore at the rate of Rs 1000, per head.

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