Business Of Tear Smoke

In the recent years of unrest, young Kashmiris were often found on the frontlines, pelting stones in protest. But as Mukeet Akmali reports, three Kashmiri youth would stay behind after the clashes, for extracting livelihood from trouble.

Umar worked as a mechanic in the Maisuma area and Wasim is a college dropout. And Khalid, according to Umar and Wasim, is in love. (All gave only their first names)

Three men, all in their early twenties found themselves in quite a dilemma during the 2008 unrest. Umar was unemployed. “I had no money to feed my parents and two sisters,” he says. “My father is a laborer who couldn’t work due to the situation (unrest),” he adds. These desperate times led to desperate measures for Umar.

Maisuma has long been notorious for being the hub of dissidence in times of unrest. After one of the many protests that took place there, Umar found himself walking on the street. Long after the crowds of stone pelters and posses of government forces had dispersed, Umar chanced upon the “leftovers”—tear gas canister shells. Several of them lay scattered on the street. He picked them up, and sold them to a local scrap dealer for Rs300.

So began Umar’s unconventional source of income during dire times. As time passed by, Umar asked two of his best friends to join him in collecting empty tear gas shells.

One of his friends is Wasim. “When Umar told me about making money from tear gas shells, I was very excited. So I joined him,” he says. Wasim says the employment picture was quite bleak at that time, and he wanted to take any opportunity he could get. “I thought during the unrest I could easily earn 200 to 300 Rupees without any effort. There really was no shortage of teargas shells after clashes in the downtown area.”

Umar’s friend Khalid started the same business as well, but apparently due to some other reasons. Umar laughs and says,“during the 2008 unrest, Khalid had no money to recharge his mobile phone in order to talk to his girlfriend. That’s when he told me that he too wants to make money from selling tear gas shells.”

Khalid, however refutes Umar’s claim and says, “I joined my friends Umar and Wasim because I wanted to earn money quickly.”

“Collecting empty tear gas shells was the easiest and most readily available way to do that during that time,” he says.

The three friends say they realize they are in a bizarre situation—they wait for encounters on the streets in order to earn their living. “On a good day, when the clashes are fierce and scores of shells are fired—we earn a decent amount,” they say. “Sometimes we earn as much as Rs500 a day.”

One of them awkwardly laughs and says, “We are also thankful to those automatic machine guns that fire dozens of these shells in a matter of seconds!” He’s referring to the multi-barrelteargas firing gun called the Agni Varsha. This weapon was used by security forces to deal with large groups of protesters during unrest.

Khalid says the money they make is decent in relation to the work involved. “The scrap buyer to whom we sell these tear gas shells gives us Rs70 for each kilogram of an empty canister,” he says. “After a big clash, we can easily collect roughly 10kgs of empty shells.”

After a day of clearing up the inanimate remains of a protest, the three friends sell the tear gas shells in Maharaja Gunj to a prominent scrap dealer.

The scrap dealer says he too makes a good fortune out of these empty canisters, by selling them at a much higher price in the market. The dealer says that when the situation would turn for the worse, he would expect a call from one of these young boys. “Keep your shop open, they would tell me,” he says.

But there is still an air of sadness that envelops them, say the three friends. “No one can claim that we are happy when someone gets hurt or killed in these clashes,” said one of them. “We have seen our friends get injured. A friend of ours lost his eyesight during last year’s clashes. Doctors have told him he can never see again.”

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