Living on edge

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They extract stones from mountains to derive their livelihood, and in many cases, the quarries they work in, end their lives. Saima Riyaz peeps into the lives of quarry workers.

Taja Bano’s  eyes swell with tears, as she narrates her ordeal.“My son was in 9th standard when his father died while working in a quarry. I have lived in such penury and hardship that I can’t explain in words” said Bano, whose husband Abdul Samad Bhat died while working in a stone quarry in Awantipora. Her son Muhammad Shafi, 12 then, left school to support his family – mother and sister.

“Education was out of the question for me. I even sold the small land we had, to renovate my home to make it suitable for living and to marry off my sister,” said Shafi. And then he joined the same ‘risky’ stone quarry his father worked in.

“Some stone quarries are so dangerous that a stone can come down anytime, crush your head killing you on the spot or disable a person forever. But I am ready to adopt this profession for my children whom I want to give education and everything I could not get,” he said.

Surviving a stone blow means living a challenging life.

“I used to work from 8 (morning) to 5 (evening), and somehow make the two ends meet, but the day my leg was injured changed my world,” said Muhammad Asadullah Mir.

Mir was hit by a falling stone 12 years back.“ I was not given any compensation by the contractor and I am not in a position to fight for the cause,” he added.

“Today I barely earn 1000 Rs a month which is nothing.” Asadullah can no longer work in a stone quarry. His injured leg left him with no option but to take help from his relatives and neighbours.

Mir’s is not an isolated case. There are many, who have to depend on the help of relatives and friends.

In 2006 while working in the Bahu stone quarry in Tral, a heavy stone fell on Muhammad Ishaq Kasab’s leg crushing his right knee. He remained bedridden for three years. “My only source of income left was my almond orchard but that too was occupied by the army. I was on the mercy of my relatives, neighbours and friends during those three years as I was not able to move an inch,” said Ishaq.

Despite two knee surgeries, Ishaq can’t bend his knee.“I can’t fold my leg and it makes my day to day personal work cumbersome let alone to work for a living. But I have to manage somehow as my children are very young and I have to look after them,” he added.

People in locality offer him some light labour work at their homes through which he earns his living. The contractor gave him some money for the medicines but, he considers, that too meagre. He wishes he could have fought for his right at the right time but neither his health nor anybody else assisted him. “I was lying on a bed, too weak to do anything,” Ishaq sighed.

Stone quarries of Tral claimed many lives until they were closed down by the government to make way for the pipes of a lift irrigation scheme. Mohammad Yusuf Pandit and Fayaz Ahmad Bhat of Bahu, Tral have spent their childhood extracting stones from these quarries. “My father Ghulam Nabi Bhat was driving a stone-laden truck down the mountain when it tumbled killing him there and then. I was only 10 then and the burden of the whole family came on my shoulders,” said Bhat.

Pandit adds, “Both of us lost our fathers at a very young age when children are not even familiar with work, leave alone extracting stones. We extracted stones with our little hands.”

For some, like Muhammad Akram Teli, an accident in a quarry that left him disabled, has turned into a nightmare that reminds him of the fateful day all the time. The 45-year-old of Ghat Mohalla, Awantipora, can’t work in a quarry now, as the accident left him with a constant tremble. “Last year I got terribly hurt when a stone fell on me damaging my ear and arm. I don’t have epilepsy but I tremble while walking,” remarked Teli. He supports his wife and three children.

His neighbour Habibulillah Dar died when a stone-laden truck from his own quarry tumbled killing two labourers and injuring his two sons severely. “I was in 5th standard when my father died. My head had got injured and I feel dizzy while walking and my injured eye has poor sight now. My brother’s arm is also damaged. He can’t lift heavy objects,” said Muzaffar Ahmad Dar. Muzaffar still works in a stone quarry. Their own quarry is occupied by the army.

Stories of death and struggle abound in the quarries, wherever one goes. The story is repeated in Mandekpal, Pampore, where a quarry is now closed. Tasleema brought up her children, until they could earn, singlehandedly after her husband Ali Muhammad Bhat was crushed by a truck carrying down stones from his own quarry. “My younger son, Yunis, had to leave school and help me earn for the family when he was a kid,” said Tasleema. She wants to see her family settled and fulfil all her responsibilities as soon as possible. “Life seems very transitory to me now and that is why I married one of my daughters at a young age,” she added.

Although women do not work as labourers in stone quarries but they do work in whatever way possible to help the family.“I try to maintain the bond but the truth is poverty separated my family. My elder son is in my parents’ home, my aunt is bringing up my younger son and I can take care of only my daughter,” said Salima, who works as a helper to a gynaecologist.

Salima’s husband, died in a quarry, by slipping down. The stone quarries of Awantipora and Panthachowk are considered dangerous as the stones can slide anytime while as the stones of Mandekpal quarries do not slip.

“We don’t, rather can’t, do blasting as is done in Awantipora or Pathachowk stone quarries because here the stone is precious and soft, even a matchbox is enough to blast the stone quarry. The stones are delicate and blasting will blow it up into pieces which can make the stones useless,” said Bashir Ahmad Lone, a stone carver. They consider that they can do better but the cold weather and the situation in Kashmir are the impediments.

“In too many holidays we struggle for bread and better. Unfavourable weather is the holiday, hartal has to be a holiday, ill health becomes a holiday as are Fridays, he added.” Yet they manage to feed their families from the working days which at maximum are twenty if all goes well.

Unlike Awantipora, the contractors of Khrew (Mandekpal) quarries claim that they give compensation to their injured workers. “Here it is an unspoken rule to support the workers injured or killed while working, till their family members start earning their livelihood. I bore the medicinal expenses of Ali Muhammad Bhat, took care of his family during his illness period,” said Abdul Majeed Mir, the contractor. He, however, admitted that if denied help, people do not take hassles to fight for themselves.

“Bhat was among my workers. I supported his family like I employed his son as a worker when he was a little kid,” shared Abdul Majeed Mir. “And now he is working, doing well like his father who was the master of the art. He used to cut a stone as if cutting a cake,” said Majeed.

 “This profession needs patience. We don’t do things in haste. It is like glass work. One incorrect blow and stone is of no use,” said an artisan.

According to the artisan’s stones of Mandekpal quarry are superior to Awantipora and Panthachowk stone quarries. “The stone is known as Sangi devri or koshir devri. It is soft and we can mould it in any shape, make a stone cup, pestle and mortar or any fancy thing with the stones of Mandekpal and Sadrikout stone quarries and it is unique to it,” Abdul Majeed Mir added.

Mir said the stonecutters are better placed than the quarry workers as the cutters are able to get market rates as while as the wages of quarry workers are fixed.

Many of these workers say the profession would not last for long. “The mountain is almost finished and it will be exhausted soon. There were fifty quarries in Mandekpal and now only four have remained,” said Mir.

“But for whatever time the quarries are there they continue to feed and kill people. Preventive measures can be taken like examining the condition of the part of quarry you are supposed to work on. But in the majority of the cases, even caution can’t help because you never know when and where a stone will fall down. It is simply your destiny,” Muhammad Shafi, a worker, said remarked.

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