Extracting Hope

Despite strict laws preventing teenagers from working in health hazard conditions children in Kashmir end up carrying burdens on their feeble shoulders. Umer Hayat and Ovais Gora meet one such youngster who supports a family of six by extracting sand for a living    

Marif Bhat with his family.
Marif Bhat with his family.

Srinagar city is fast changing from thatched roof houses in to concrete buildings. These edifices engulfed mud and wooden structures. Concrete buildings, macadamized roads and huge bridges changed the facade of city and for erecting them sand is used as a fundamental fiber.

Tones and tones of sand is dug out from water bodies and carried to locations where these buildings are in the stage of infancy. But these constructions don’t materialize only at the cost paid for buying the sand.  Thousands of sand diggers, with inconspicuous faces and shovel laden hands, work from dawn to dusk so as to make the ends meet for such constructions.

Among these myriad sun-burnt faces, there is a young radiant face of a small boy, named Marif hailing from village Sangam in Islamabad district. He lives in an age old kaput house adjoined with an unkempt courtyard, which undoubtedly degrades the aesthetic values of the house.  He is yet to complete the 14th year of his life, but has already sacrificed his childhood for sand disinterring process.

Marif does not dig up the sand from river bed for killing time, nor does he care much about providing raw material to urban areas for constructing skyscrapers. He is enslaved by this back breaking job because there are six empty stomachs back at home and onus lies upon him to feed them. Sweat oozing from his skin, while extracting sand, acts as a fuel which keeps their cooking furnace warm.

His day begins when morning twilight is yet to conquer the faceless gloom of the night. It’s the same time when fortunate people are squandering in their shapeless dreams. When pondering over other options, Marif has realized there is naught but equip himself with the shovel and turn his back towards the sleeping world. Despite being the youngest member of the family, his determination never let him down and he rubs shoulders with elder members of the drove.

From Sampora in Pampore to the Zero Bridge area in Rajbagh, about 700 families are dependent on sand digging, including 80 from Pantha Chowk, 40 from Athwajan and 500 in Pampore. While in district Islamabad there are about 300 families who are extracting their livelihood from riverbed and most of them inherited this. Marif too inherited this from his father.

Marif thinks his shoulders were meant to be loaded with responsibility. “Father dug sand and earned for us when I was very young,” says Marif, “His ailing health shifted the load from his shoulders to mine, and without a formal announcement the responsibility of feeding the family fell upon me.”

He was a toddler when his mother died of cancer. His father Ghulam Nabi is a helpless man. It is soul agonizing for him to see his son being deprived of the childhood which Marif never asked for. But Ghulam Nabi is captive of his own fate.

Though he doesn’t want his son to undertake this back breaking task but his family circumstances have handcuffed his conscience and he never let tears to trickle down his cheeks from his moist eyes. They are tiny, but Marif’s hands are the sole vent through which their family gets livelihood.

Ghulam Nabi thinks of his son as the strongest pillar of his family, after his wife passed away.

“I want him to play like other kids and not be burdened with feeding a large family,” says Ghlam Nabi, “But my physical disability has turned out to be a curse for him.”

Marif, though a juvenile, is using his grey matter effectively. Spoon feeding his family is not the sole aspiration of his life. He wants that the shadow of education and knowledge should fall on his face which will enlighten his mind and soul.

“I don’t want my hands to be laden with shovel and sand forever. I want to become a teacher. I want to act as a noontide to the eventide of the illiteracy which has shrouded my community. While keeping my family circumstance in my mind, it is evident that my journey to educate myself is not going to be an easy one. But I will try my best to give a concrete shape to my dreams,” Marif assures.

Marif is caught in the crossfire of his desire for education and dependability of his family on the shoulders which still needs some growing to do. Is he going to conquer his dreams or his optimistic vision will be obscured by the clouds of despair?  It’s hard to discern. But the definitive answer for this query lies in future.


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