In run-up to August 5, when the government issued advisory asking non locals to leave Kashmir immediately, tens of thousands of skilled and migrant workers left home. As the communication blockade prevented them to stay in touch with their employers, almost entire manufacturing facility suffered immensely, reports Shams Irfan
On October 14 when mobiles phones started to ring again after 71 days of communication blockade, Abid Khan, 35, made his first call to his work’s supervisor Aman in Kolkata. It was a short but emotional call. The call was made to assure Aman that the situation has improved in Kashmir and he can now return along with his team of workers.
Khan, who owns a cardboard box manufacturing plant in Industrial Estate, Khunmoh, had to shut-down operations on August 3, after non-local workforce started to leave Kashmir en masse. “I convinced Aman and few other workers to stay back,” recalls Khan.
But on August 5, after the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, Aman and other labourers became restless. “So I let them go,” said Khan. “For the first time they started fearing for their lives in Kashmir.”
The same day, Khan locked down his manufacturing facility halting all operations. “I had an advance order for manufacturing of over five lakh apple boxes,” said Khan. “There was no possibility of any work.”
As apple-harvesting season was approaching fast, Khan invested his entire savings to meet the demand and deadline.
“When landline phones started to function, I rang Aman and asked him to keep labourers ready as I was sure things will be normal in a short while,” said Khan. “But I was proven wrong.”
Khan’s emotional call was one last effort to convince Aman to come back before apple season concludes.
But Khan is not the only one who has tried everything to convince labourers to come back. A number of factory owners lured their workers with gifts like new mobile phones, bonuses and other things to convince them back to work.
For Majeed, a young entrepreneur who owns a small food processing plant in Khunmoh, getting back skilled workers was like a herculean task for him.
“I had to talk to every single worker’s family, parents, wife, kids and convince them that they will be safe,” said Majeed, who managed to get his key workers back in early October.
In order to keep his workers happy after their return, Majeed promised them bonus on Diwali and an extra day’s holiday.
“I have made small space for my products in the market in last three years. Now, after staying shut for over two months I have lost my 70 percent market already,” said Majeed.
Majeed is sceptical that his workers will leave him any day forcing him to close his unit forever. “I tried to hire locals but they lack both expertise and urge to learn,” said Majeed sadly.
In Industrial Estate, Lassipora, Pulwama, Asim Iqbal, 30, sits near a fixed line phone in his makeshift office.
In July this year, Asim started construction of his dream project, a Controlled Atmosphere (CA) Cold Storage, on the sprawling 18 kanals of land. “I had set a target to start my unit before next fruit season. But I don’t see that happening now,” said Asim.
On August 3, when the work was in full swing at Asim’s upcoming unit, government of Jammu and Kashmir issued an advisory asking tourists to leave Kashmir immediately.
It set off a panic reaction among every non-local staying in Kashmir, including hundreds of thousands of labourers working at different ongoing construction sites.
“Before I could know, all of them left in panic,” said Asim.
The next two months saw work moving at a snail’s pace, as engineers and other technical people required at different stages of construction refused visiting Kashmir. “They think there is a war going on in Kashmir,” said Asim.
This Rs 30 crore project is one of the three ongoing CA projects at Lassipora which will add nearly 5000 metric tonnes to around 1.10 lakh capacity in Kashmir. Asim is not sure if local labourers can fill the gap left by non-locals. “Work culture is missing here,” feels Asim, as he watches a heavy earthmover dig into stone-filled soil outside his office.
Tabish Mehar, 29, who manufactures cardboard boxes for apples, wanted to change the work culture when he first started Mehar Packs unit in April 2016.
But three months later, Mehar was facing an existential crisis when Kashmir remained shut for six months after Burhan Wani’s killing in July. “It was my first year and I was literally trying to set my feet when it happened,” said Tabish, an MSc in Information Technology from Lovely Professional University, Punjab. “But I didn’t quit. I worked like a labourer and quickly picked basics of operating all machines,” said Tabish.
While most of the apple box manufacturing units remained closed in 2016, Tabish worked round the clock to meet the deadlines. “It helped me make a customer base quickly,” said Tabish. He employed 14 full time workers, mostly non-locals, to meet the demand.
In anticipation of a bumper apple crop Tabish had ordered raw material worth crores from outside. He wanted to push his capacity to its maximum by reaching a target of ten lakh boxes. “In 2018, I sold over eight lakh boxes. This year I wanted to make more,” said Tabish. But at the peak of apple season, Tabish’s factory is shut permanently since last week of September.
“I managed to retain my workers after everyone else has left in Lassipora,” said Tabish. “I had raw material worth crores already purchased. If I had not used it quickly, I might have incurred huge losses.”
But retaining his workers was not easy, especially in face of absolute communication shutdown. “I stayed with my workers throughout,” said Tabish. “I made sure they are safe and not harassed by anyone.”
Also, when fixed landlines started to function, Tabish would take workers in groups of twos and fours to his home in Hyderpora, Srinagar, and make them talk to their families back home in different Indian cities. “This way they would feel satisfied,” said Tabish. “There were factory owners who took their workers to Banihal and Ramban to help them talk to their families during initial days of communication lockdown.”
After the communication was restored partially, Tabish tried to convince his workers to come back but they refused flatly.
“Our work season is already coming to an end. What will they do here in winters,” said Tabish. “Also, they are afraid. It was communication shutdown that scared them the most.”