Large numbers of Migrant labourers flock to Kashmir during the summers. Qazi Ziad looks at the reasons, necessity and impacts of this migration
Every morning Fairoze Ahmed gets down from the wooden stairs of his house, in a small hamlet in Budgam. Riyaz, his neighbour, keeps the huge, blue coloured milk churns ready for him to pick up. Fairoze loads them into his load carrier, waves to Riyaz and makes way for Srinagar. Smartly dressed and well shaven, Fairoze has been driving to Srinagar every morning, since the past seven years, where he is able to deliver the milk to a family that runs a business of milk and milk products. Traditionally called ‘Goor’ in Kashmiri, the family that runs the business now needs extra hands in their small milk factory.
Due to increase in the population and growing demands, production also had to be increased and with that came the demand for labour. Out of 14 people who work in the milk factory, 9 are labourers from outside Kashmir. Increase in population has led to building of more houses and the city of Srinagar has expanded from all directions. The area of Peerbagh in Srinagar, which was marshy land just a decade back, has transformed into a housing colony, where huge mansions can be seen decorating the mountainous background.
Irfan, who hails from Uttar Pradesh (UP) works as a contractor and is currently working in three houses, all in the area of Peerbagh. “I came to Kashmir seven years back as a carpenter. The work opportunity here is great as compared to Delhi, where I was previously working and the competition is less. This helped me to rise from a carpenter to a contractor. I come to work in Kashmir in the summers and go back to Delhi in the winters,” says Irfan. The number of migrant labourers present in Kashmir, in summers are estimated to be between 2,00,000 and 5,00,000. The number seems to be growing with each passing year.
Irfan gets labourers from Delhi, many of whose origin is from UP and Bihar. According to Irfan, availability of skilled and unskilled labour in Kashmir is less and it is easier for him to get the labourers from UP and Bihar. The labourers from these states also work for lesser wages than those who hail from Kashmir. “I have to pay lesser to the labourers who come from outside and they also work for more hours. If I get local labourers, it gets problematic since they take more breaks than those who are from outside,” he adds.
Kashmir’s prosperity is also one reason that has attracted labourers. Shuhabudin, who works as a labourer under Irfan says that he had gone to Dubai to work as a labourer and worked there for three years. “I earn and save more here in Kashmir, than I saved in Dubai. Travel and other expenses there took away a major portion of what I earned. Here, expenditure is less and travelling is not as big an issue as it is when working abroad,” says Shuhabudin. According to Shuhabudin, labourers who come to Kashmir are able to save more than those who work in Bihar, where Shuhabudin hails from, and use the saving to either buy land or better the conditions of their household. This encourages other labourers to follow them. It is also easy for unskilled labourers to find work who flock to Kashmir during summers, when a major portion of construction takes place. A majority of these migrant labourers hail from Bihar, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.
A mix of faces of different origins can be seen in the bylanes of Batamaloo, in the heart of Srinagar, every morning. Labourers stand, waiting for work. A bearded man in his fifties, Mohammad Sultan, a local labourer, has not got any employment since the past two days. He hurriedly comes to anyone approaching him, hoping that it would be a potential employer. “Not so long ago, there would be no labourer standing here after 10 AM because everyone would get work. Now because of labourers from outside, we sometimes have to wait for a few days before we get work. The government should do something about it,” says Sultan. Better wages and better employment opportunities have been the driving force for the migrant labourers to come to Kashmir.
Labourers from Kashmir would seasonally migrate to Punjab looking for employment in winters, this trend has reversed now, where labourers from outside come to Kashmir in summers. Although workers, businessmen and hawkers of Kashmiri origin work in different parts of India to earn their livelihood, there is unavailability of local labourers in Kashmir, in comparison to the demand. The prosperity of Kashmir has created a vacuum of labour class, where demand is more than the supply, which is filled by migrant workers from outside the state. Migration of Kashmiri workers to other states also adds to the problem. Labourers of Kashmiri origin are seen in Himachal working in bus stands and apple orchids.
Shared religious affiliation is also one of the contributors, for the migrant labourers to prefer Kashmir over other places. Many of the labourers are Muslims and share their religious belief with the majority of the people of Kashmir. Razaq, in his late forties takes quick breaks, washes his hands and feet with water running from a nearby hose-pipe and makes sure that he prays each time the call for prayer is heard. “It becomes easy to live in a place where people share the same faith. I don’t have to worry about anyone harassing me for what I believe in or because of my beard and cap. Only a few days back I took a day off because it was Shab-e-Baraat. It would have been difficult if I was not in Kashmir. Kashmiri people treat us with respect,” says Razaq, who works as a labourer in Nowgam Railway Station. According to Razaq, the conflict does not bother him and he did not leave Kashmir even during the summer unrest of 2008-2010. It was only when the cold set in, that he decided to go back to UP.
Many labourers share accommodation, often living in extreme conditions where 10 people share a small room, to save expenditure. Traditional works like that of ‘waazwaan’, Kashmiri cuisine prepared by traditional cooks, also require extra hands and often employ outsiders for petty work like shifting, loading and unloading. Migrant labourers take up work in the field and work as masons, carpenters, painters, vegetable sellers and are also working in traditional Kashmiri occupations. Starting off as agricultural help, many migrant workers now work intelligently by taking up contracts with the landowners to harvest an area.
Due to availability of cheaper and more efficient labourers, development related projects have had a boost. Many of the industries that are set up in the state employ skilled and unskilled workers from outside Kashmir. Aga Syed Aijaz Hussain, General Manager of SIDCO says that if workers from Kashmir are employed, production costs of the goods will also go up which will affect the market price of the goods. He adds that the reason that Jammu has seen more development related projects and setting up of industries than Kashmir, is availability of labour throughout the year, in addition to better connectivity and more political stability.
Labourers’ strikes and violence, like that of the July 2012, Maruti’s Manesar plant, points towards workers frustration in India. The incident was triggered by a fire that killed a company official and injured 100 more. In June 2005, workers agitated at a Hero Honda plant demanding higher wages. The strike caused the company a loss of estimated 130 Crores. In a recent incident that caught a lot of media attention, CEO of a jute mill in Bengal, Hari Kusum Maheshwari, was beaten to death by factory workers. Vastly outnumbered in the face of the assault, Maheshwari slumped to the ground and died on the way to the hospital. Although Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was quick to allege that is was the handiwork of “CPM and BJP goons”, the incident exposed the anger and frustrations of the labourers in mainland India. Another jute mill had seen violence from the labourers in 2001 in Baranagar. The reason for the violence was that production of the company was more than demand and it could not sell everything that it produced. The authorities decided to cut labour force, which made the labourers angry. The situation is somewhat reverse in Kashmir where demand is more than the supply. Better Labour conditions in comparison to many parts of India also make Kashmir a preferred choice. In a region where unemployment and frustrations run high, a fine balance needs to be achieved between getting extra hands to help boost production, while running the risk of increasing unemployment in the state.