Hope at last

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With broken marriages, children out of schools and penury, the ill-fated CONFED employees lost everything including esteem. Many attempted suicide, some lost their mental balance but they are still fighting. A Kashmir Life report.

The government has religiously been discussing the CONFED case in the cabinet.

The government has religiously been discussing the CONFED case in the cabinet.

Tragedies abound in Kashmir. Not every tragedy leaves the soil soaked in blood. There are many bloodless murders and the employees of the erstwhile J&K State Cooperative Consumers Federation (CONFED) are just another story.

It was on July 15, 1999 when Dr Farooq Abdullah approved CONFED (started in 1943 as Kashmir Peoples Cooperative Service Ltd and renamed as CONFED in 1989) closure. Unpaid by the government and ignored by the society, over 125 months of destitution and ensuing struggle for rights took a toll on them. Schools threw their children out. Families have split and marriages broken. Many attempted suicide. Six of them died for want of proper medical care. At least one of them has been declared mad and is a wandering soul, seen shuttling between Apna Bazaar and various other locations that the CONFED once owned.

Harpal Singh, their erstwhile President married off his daughter after selling off his ancestral home thinking he would clear the debts once the government paid his dues. As the wait prolonged, he got frustrated. A bus crushed him to death one day. His widow lives in a shanty. They have sold almost every prized possession including LPG cylinders and telephones, to sustain the battle to have an honourable exit.

Part of the erstwhile powerful cooperative movement, CONFED would sell a variety of items from cloth to fertilizers, in bulk, through a chain of fair price shops across the state. Government included CONFED clientele. With quota raj gone and government permitting its departments to acquire requirements from the open market CONFED market shrunk considerably. The two decades of turbulence accentuated its problems.

CONFED employees’ plight continues to be a classical case of criminal apathy of the successive regimes. They were not the only unviable organisation that reached the dead end. MilkFed, Social Forestry Project, Vijapaypur Cooperative Society, Cooperative Store Miskeenbagh and Tawi Scooters were all closed down but all of their employees were adjusted in other departments.

The government has religiously been discussing the CONFED case in the cabinet. In 1999 cabinet decided its closure. In 2002 it decided to sell its assets to raise money to compensate the employees. Another meeting deferred the decision partially and said options be explored– revival, golden handshake or adjustment in other departments. Finally in 2004 cabinet approves golden handshake.

CONFED men tried their bit to help the government to salvage it. When the government decided that the institution “has no future”, the employees identified its assets and went to the government with a re-structuring plan. On a prime piece of land in the city, the employees sought permission for construction of a commercial complex that could have cleared all liabilities, create capital assets and offer employment to all (then 137) employees.

“The government was happy, then there was silence. Finally, the land valued over Rs 86 crore in the open market was allotted surreptitiously to two businessmen at a petty amount of Rs 80 lakh. They constructed huge complexes and earned tens of crore,” said one employee. The employees remained spectators to the transactions because they were told they would be adjusted in other departments if they avoided making it an issue.

As nothing happened, the employees (then 117) knocked at the door of the judiciary. And the verdict finally came on June 6, 2008. “…the petitioners are required to be considered under the original cabinet order No 109/12 of 1999 dated 15.07.1999 read with golden handshake scheme formulated under later order of 20.01.2007 in view whereof  all these petitions are disposed off by providing that the petitioners herein be considered in super-cession of all orders to contrary for adjustment under the cabinet order of 1999 and such of them as may not aspire or be eligible for adjustment except for age which has already been directed to be considered segregated by this court previously, be offered the golden handshake scheme formulated under cabinet order 12.01.2007 as already mentioned,” directed Justice B A Kirmani.

On August 20, 2008 Secretary Cooperatives sets up a committee to “examine the eligibility” of petitioners to implement the court verdict. The committee works quite fast and submits its report on September 11, 2008. Against 140 employees (including 22 in Jammu) as on the date of CONFED closure, the committee traces the liability as only 98 because one had been terminated, 22 had retired, 14 had been adjusted in other departments, and four had died.

Of the 98 falling in five categories, as per the committee report, seven were in assistant mangers category, 55 in accountants, store keepers, typists or sales men category, 12 were assistant salesmen or junior assistants, seven were peons or cleaners and the remaining 17 were chowkidars. Of them 81 would retire in 10 years and others before them.

After some officials, apparently on humanitarian grounds, moved swiftly and finished whatever was to be done, a lull followed. This necessitated the erstwhile employees to approach the High Court. The government counsel said they needed some more investigations of records which have been completed. On December 12, Justice M Yaqoob Mir granted the government a month to take a final decision.

For the first time in over a decade the employees, some of whom are surviving on menial jobs and most of them are literally begging, the hope is replacing the hoaxes. But it still depends on the official machinery how soon it decides.

It still is an alarming crisis. “We recently lost two of our colleagues. Abdul Rashid Sheikh died of stomach cancer without an effort to get treated because it needed money,” said Nazir Ahmad Baba one of the employees who remained in the forefront of their battle in the court. “Another of our colleagues died of heart attack so we are now only 96.” He said in one of the two cases who died, children have been denied rights over the father’s property due to family dispute. He says certain divorces have taken place without actually been inked. “Take the case of our colleague Manzoor Shubnam who has lost his mental balance and is wandering in Lal Chowk, he has never gone to see his family that includes a graduate daughter and none among us is in a position to know anything of the family that is surviving in oblivion.”

“Now there is hope (after the government said it is in the process of implementing the court order),” says one of the erstwhile employees. “We believe the son will do justice to those, who have been the victims of his father’s decision.”

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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