Jobs Mandi

Srinagar city’s MK Chowk has developed as a labour mandi as local and non-local labourers throng the place to find work. Abdul Mohamin spent a day there to know how the market works.

Abdul Majeed prepares lunch early so that he can reach Mirza Kamil Chowk at Hawal by 7.30 am. He works as a manual labourer. There would be hundreds more at the place, looking for work.

The place is buzzing with activity, when most people in the sleepy city are still in their homes. The traffic is thin, yet the wide road is barely passable.
Hordes of workers, both locals and non-locals, can be seen negotiating their wages with customers.Majeed has always found a job at that place. People who need labourers – construction workers, painters, plumbers, agriculture workers or any other manual work come to MK Chowk early in the morning to hire them. The actual work day at the site starts at 9 am.

Lal-din Khan, a resident of Handawara, is the first among the labourers to reach the spot. He is a woodcutter. As it is early for people to turn up looking for labourers, he takes time to sharpen his tools on the roadside pavement.

“This is where we come to find work when we don’t have any,” says Khan who, meanwhile, is approached by a customer and busies himself in negotiating a deal. Though both local and non-local labourers work together at a site, they form separate groups at the place: Local labourers on one side of the road and non-locals on the other. Even the wages are negotiated separately. Most of the non-local workforce comes from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Abdul Rub Bazaz of Hawal runs a hardware store at Hawal. He says that the number of labourers coming from outside the state has risen over the years.

“The number of non-local labourers has increased due to a construction boom and shortage of labourers in the valley,” says Bazaz.

During the last two decades there has been a change in building materials and design, giving skilled labourers from outside an edge over the local ones, says Bazaz. Some of the jobs are only done by non-locals.

“Most of the Plaster of Paris, gypboard, alumunium and glass fabrication workers are non-locals,” he said.

Almost everyone finds work if the weather is good. As rains hamper construction work so do Kashmir’s winters. The outside workers return to their homes in winters.

Mohamamd Shamim of Gopalganj district of Bihar does not pack his meals like Majeed. He and his co-workers have a “heavy” breakfast in the morning. But before leaving to find work, they make a visit to Abdul Gaffer’s Kiosk.

Gaffar, who has been coming to Kashmir for work since 1979, sells pan (beetle leaves) and chewing tobacco at his kiosk outside his rented house at Hawal. His kiosk sees a huge rush in the morning as non-local labourers make a beeline for chewing tobacco and a pan.

In the past most of the workers from outside the state would prefer to stay in Hawal area but many have shifted to Srinagar’s suburbs or villages because of the unrest during the last three summers, says Gaffar.

“The situation was worse for labrourers during curfews and hartlas (strikes) last year. Many labourers have taken accommodation in suburban areas or villages this year,” Gaffar said.

Some labourers such as Sayeed Bihari who have been working in Kashmir for years have learnt the local language. “It (knowing local language) helps in negotiating deals or wages,” he says.

The non-local workers move about in groups and only one among the group negotiates with a customer.

The “senior” ones among the outside labourers bring along other men from their areas and charge some amount from them as commission, says Javed Ahmed a construction contractor.

“You can see these labourers in close knit groups. It is because the senior ones or you may call him the contractor pays for their fare and arranges accommodation for them here and they have to pay him back through commission and obedience, at least in the first few years,” Javed Ahmed said.
The wage rates fluctuate with the demand. Good weather, peaceful situation and peak agriculture season send the rates up.

MK Chowk is almost calm by 9:30 am. Those who had come looking for work either found it or returned to their homes. No traffic jams. No rush of people, though it is the morning rush hour.

However, by 6 pm the din returns to the place. The outside workers are out to get their daily ration. A vendor sells many vegetables not found in Kashmir but native to the states the labourers come from. They throng the vendor. Others are busy, buying tobacco products, recharging their mobile phones and chatting. A couple of hours later they return to their houses to prepare for another day.

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