Here To Stay?

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You’ve seen them around many areas. People from outside of the state who come to Kashmir in search of a better life. SHAMS IRFAN explores the lives of some slum dwellers- people who say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and their motivation of choosing Kashmir.

A slum on the outskirts of famous saffron town Pampore – Photo: Shams Irfan

Amidst a pile of colorful soft drink bottles Mohammad Kalamiya, 45, sat on an empty lubricant container and smiled like a content man. He has not visited his hometown Nopora Bonga in Kolkota for the past five years. “Back home, most of the time we would go without even two square meals. But thank God, at least now I can feed my family properly,” he said. His wife told me he has deliberately taken a day off today, as he wanted to enjoy the winter sun.

Kalamiya and his fellow villagers have settled on a vacant piece of land near Pampore, which is surrounded by newly constructed houses on both sides. One can identify the slum from a distance, it stands out among big houses like a bee among butterflies. On the outskirts of the slum, young kids, mostly naked and dirty in appearance, roam around aimlessly and chase any vehicle that comes in sight.

“Five years ago, a distant relative of mine convinced me to come to Kashmir for work. He promised me that I would never have to sleep on an empty stomach again, as there is a lot of work and good money in Kashmir. So I left everything behind and came here,” said Kalamiya.

“Within six months, my entire family joined me here to help me with my work. Now, after five years, almost my entire village is here with me,” he said with a proud smile flashing his beetle colored teeth.

For first two years, Kalamiya stayed at Pantha Chowk Bypass. But he left as soon as his family came to live with him. “It was too crowded and polluted there, just like Kolkota city, so we shifted to Pampore in 2008,” said Kalamiya’s young wife.

“We leave early in the morning and often work till late hours. I am quite familiar with Pulwama and adjoining villages. It is better than Kolkata as people hardly mind our presence here,” said Habib ul Rehman, Kalamiya’s son-in-law and a rag picker himself. The land on which Kalamiya and his villagers have settled ‘temporarily’ belongs to a local businessman, who charges them 1200 rupees as rent for a year’s stay.

Kalamiya and those from his village work for a Nowgam-based scrap dealer who sends a truck every 15 days to collect scrap from them. For every kilogram of cardboard and paper that Kalamiya and his team collect, they earn three and a half rupees, while plastic waste such as empty soft drink bottles, crushed tin cans and empty mineral water bottles earn them six rupees per kilogram.

“After deducting all expenses, I save about four to five hundred rupees a month which I am saving for my dream house,” said Kalamiya.

“It is the money that attracts everyone to Kashmir,” said Murshid Hussain, who recently brought his entire family with him from his native village a few months ago. “More people mean more working hands.”

Every morning, a large group of labourers wait near Bemina crossing to board buses for different parts of the city, where they work all day on various construction sites. After completing their day’s work, they come back to spend the night in their respective makeshift hutments, which lay scattered for miles along the Srinagar-Baramulla Bypass road. These hutments are mostly made of small cardboard pieces joined together, and covered with colorful polythene and other such leftover material to help them survive the harsh winters. The entire area along the highway stands out against the sea-grey mountains in the background.

“There was no work in our village. So one day, I packed whatever I had and came straight to Kashmir,” said Manoj Kumar, a native of Nidolikalan village in Uttar Pardesh, who is currently working as a painter at a house in the posh Hyderpora locality. “I have done every kind of job in Kashmir. Ten years ago, when I came here, I started as a laborer at a construction site in Chanapora.

But with time, I learned new skills and now I am a trained painter,” said Manoj. He is searching for a decent accommodation for rent so that he can bring his family along in a couple of months. “Going back is not an option for me. I have decided to make Kashmir my home now.” Sajid Mahmood, 27, accompanied his uncle almost a decade ago to Kashmir. He now works as a carpenter, and said he feels that unlike in India, here, one can work all year round.

Sajid’s younger brother Wajid, who is learning carpentry from his brother, often gets fascinated by the extravagance of Kashmiris. “I have never seen such big houses before in my life. Kashmiris are rich and offer good money if work is done properly.”

Sajid’s uncle Mohammad Sadiq, who first came to Kashmir in the late 1990s started his career as a rag picker, but then quickly moved on to work on a construction site as a mason. “I was told that Kashmiris are rich people and do not indulge in such menial labour.”

According to the Chief Sanitation Officer Manzoor Ahmed Taray, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation [SMC] is in the process of registering all non-state subject rag pickers working within the limits of Srinagar city. “After proper registration, we are planning to use them for waste collection and rag-picking in Srinagar city.

They will help us in unburdening the corporation as we lack the necessary workforce.” According to SMC official website, more than 380 metric tons of garbage and waste is generated every day in Srinagar city. While 60 per cent of that waste is tackled by SMC, the rest lies scattered on the roads.

Ironically, there is no data available with SMC regarding the exact number of non-state subject slum dwellers in Srinagar. “There has been no such survey so far. There could be some 40 to 45 thousand no-local slum dwellers in Srinagar alone. But we are not sure about the exact figures,” said Taray.

According to the last official census, there are around 2,68,513 slum dwellers in Jammu and Kashmir, out of which 1,43,416 are males and 1,25,097 are females.

On October 1, 2011, Jammu and Kashmir Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Bill 2011 was passed in the State Assembly. The bill states that every landless person who is a permanent resident of the State and has lived in a slum area in any city or urban area as of January 1, 2010, will be given the right to property, and shall be entitled to a dwelling house at an affordable cost.

However, both factions of Hurriyat Conference [Geelani and Mirwaiz], blamed the government of trying to settle non-state subjects in Jammu and Kashmir in the guise of providing affordable housing to the permanent residents of the state.

Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani has threatened to launch an agitation against the bill, if the government does not take it back. He alleged that the government of India is hatching a conspiracy to “change the Muslim majority demography of the state” by settling non-state subjects in Kashmir.

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