Life @ 4500

Ever thought how casual labourers’ manage their lives in a pay check that looks more like a stipend. Jibran Nazir reports how broken promises forced them to explore other options for survival

Casual labourers protesting in Srinagar’s press enclave (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

After his father fell sick in 2004, Majeed who was a college student then, had to shoulder the responsibility of feeding his family.

“I worked as a salesman and did several odd jobs to support my family,” said Majeed, 35, from Shopian.

A year later, Majeed joined PHE department’s mechanical wing as a casual labour while he was still in college. “My salary was Rs 1900,” said Majeed.

Today, Majeed has several degrees to his name, including a master’s in Urdu, which he completed in 2008.

In 2013, he qualified National Eligibility Test (NET), and in 2016, he qualified State Eligibility Test (SET). “Still I couldn’t get a decent job. I had to continue working as a casual labourer with PHE,” said Majeed.

In last twelve years, his salary has merely increased to Rs 4500. “I am still holding on to the job because I have no other options,” said Majeed, “Now that I have waited for so long, I hope that I will get regularized.”

When Majeed, a father of two, qualified NET, he had hoped to give his family a good life, “but lack of employment options pushed me back.”

When managing his family’s expenses became tough, Majeed started teaching school children from his locality.

“I hardly manage to feed my family within my limited resources,” said Majeed. “Look at the inflation in last 12 years, how will casual labourers manage their families.”

But Majeed is not an isolated case who is struggling to feed his family despite a job!

Since last 13 years, every time Ali Mohammad Bhat, who is in his late 40’s, looks at a dome like structure, housing PHE’s Tubewell and Pumps, located in his courtyard, a sense of helplessness and defeat covers his now wrinkled face. He looks much older than his actual age, a feeling he attributes to broken promises and official apathy.

In 2004, the erstwhile Chief Engineer of the PHE department summoned Bhat, a resident of Shar-Shali, 10 kms from Pampore town. “They were surveying the area for water,” recalls Bhat. “And my vegetable garden suited them.”

Bhat gave away his land, 16-and-a-half marlas in all, to the PHE, on a promise that he will be given a government job.

Once the actual work for construction of a Pump shed began, Bhat, a father of three: two daughters and a son, started making plans. “They gave assurances,” said Bhat.

However, once the station became functional, Bhat, whose only source of income came from selling vegetables from that land, and his meagre earnings by working as labourer, felt cheated. “All I got was a heap of paperwork and more promises,” Bhat said.

The income gap, left by loss of land, forced Bhat’s children out of school. “My family was forced to starve, thus, my son started working as a labourer too,” said Bhat. “I have spent half of my life in pursuit of a government job. Now, I have reached my retirement age.”

At 10 at night, when the rest of the world goes to sleep, Nazir Ahmad, who lives in Meaj village of Pampore town, sets out to work at a construction site as a labourer.

“I work stealthily because I am employed in Agriculture department as well,” he said, “and government doesn’t allow its employees to be involved in any other financial activity.”

In 1997, Nazir, who is now in his 40’s, was employed in state agriculture department, as a daily-wager. His salary was Rs 1,300 per month, which after twenty years, has increased to Rs 4500. “That too won’t come regularly,” blames Nazir. “What I had seen as a prosperous future for me and my family has now turned out to be a burden.”

In 2008, when Nazir’s wife was admitted in a hospital, his father passed away. “I had spent all my saving on my wife’s treatment. I had no money left even for my father’s shroud,” rues Nazir.

“It was then I began exploring other option for earning, while holding on to the government job,” said Nazir. During day, he would attend his duty and at night he works as a labourer.

Bashir Ahmad, 47, who lives in Sopore town, has a similar story to tell. An ITI trained fitter-cum-welder was employed in state PHE department in 2006. He had to give up working at a private workshop for the government job.

In 2010, Bashir, a father of three and the only support to his ailing parents, had to sell his house when his son met an accident. “We had no money for my son’s treatment. Thus, I was forced to sell my house,” said Bashir.

Bashir was forced to live in a rented accommodation for some time, but left that as well, once he failed to pay the rent. At present Bashir lives at his brother’s house and strives to provide for his family.

“I hope I will get regularized and I would have my own house,” Bashir said.

In this conflict torn state, government remains the prime job provider, employing more than 7 lakh people. This includes 61,000 casual labours in various departments who have been hoping to get regularized.

“We were told we will be regularized after seven years of service, but that never happened,” said Nazir.

In March, 2016 state government constituted a committee that would frame regularization policy these casual labours.

“The governor direction to the chief secretary to expedite process of framing regularization for us brought smiles to thousands of families,” said Sajad Ahmad Parray, chairman, daily-wagers’ forum. “But it was short lived.”

In October, 2016, daily wagers and casual labour’s forum went on indefinite strike against “betrayal” of successive regimes, but to no avail.

“We have been victims of politics in past as some Ministers supported our regularization while some others opposed it,” said Sajad.

In the latest budget session, finance minister Haseeb Drabu said, “In the course of next financial year, I intend to start the process of regularization of the casual workers of various categories subject to a set of guidelines and objective criteria.”

He had a good news for likes of Bhat, Drabu said, “I am announcing the regularisation, on the contractual basis, of all those who have given their land to the state government on the promise of a government job.”

But, Bhat is not excited at all. “Such announcements have been made earlier, as well,” said Bhat, “Let’s see if they would actually be able to deliver this time.”



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