For him collecting trash from Wullar Lake is a way of life, and a means to sustenance. Meet Bilal, who started at 13, now collects 12,240 kgs of trash annually, both to clean the lake and feed his family. Zubair Sofi tells the extraordinary story of his fight for survival
At the crack of dawn, seventeen-year-old Bilal Ahmad Dar descends knee-deep into the freezing waters of the Wullar Lake, scavenging the waste disposed from various parts of the valley.
Bilal lives an arduous life with his 62-year-old mother Mughali and his 14-year-old sister Rukasana, at Laharwarpora, an area of Bandipora district.
His father Mohammad Ramzan Dar used to earn a living by collecting scrap from the lake. In 2003, he passed away due to cancer, leaving the responsibility of sustaining the family to the mother Mughali and her young son.
“I was just five years old when I lost my father to cancer. I don’t remember his face very well”, says Bilal.
For a very long time, she spent countless hours doing odd jobs in the village, ranging from cleaning utensils to looking after kitchen gardens. Whatever money she couldn’t make, she borrowed. “She was disrespected by the villagers and for a long time, I wanted to do something about it”, recalls Bilal.
Having toiled hard to earn funds for her husband’s treatment for several years, Mughali had become very frail after years of struggle.
As he grew up, Bilal saw his mother ageing and the responsibilities that lay ahead of him. Childhood was no longer a luxury he could afford and he started looking for work so that he could help his mother.
“Often, we were not able to purchase food. I remember once, while the Muslim world was feasting, we did not have food even on the occasion of Eid,” said Bilal with tears in his eyes.
In 2012, a man gave him a chance to work in Srinagar as a babysitter “that was the first job of my life, for which I was paid 2000 rupees monthly” reminisces Bilal. He left the job within a few months. He was then offered a job as a domestic helper at Raj Bagh Srinagar. “They paid me 5000 rupees per month. I left the job because I was not paid proper due for my hard work.”
At the age of 13, eight years after his father had passed away; Bilal dropped his studies and picked up where his father had left. He became the main source of income for his family.
Every morning, before the mosques blare the Fajr prayers on the loudspeakers, and before anyone wakes up, Bilal leaves his house with an empty sack on his shoulder, often without any food in his stomach, and starts his 20-minute walk to the banks of the lake.
Combing the foggy surface of the waters for signs of trash, he takes a boat from the long row and starts picking plastic bottles and polythene bags.
“In these sub-zero temperatures, it is very hard to work in the lake. But every time I grimace at the icy cold touch of the waters, I remember the look on my mother’s face and the long years of hard work and disrespect she had to go through. I remember the happiness on our faces when Kulsum got married,” recalls Bilal.
For his sister Kulsum’s marriage, Bilal had borrowed a huge sum of money. He pays the debt by collecting the scrap and giving it to the man he borrowed the money from.
“I do not own a boat. So, I take a boat without the consent of the owner and try my best to return before any of them wake up. If they find me with the boat, they curse and beat me.”
Some of the scraps, he sells for recycling at the cost of six rupees per kg; and burns the non-biodegradable wastage, dumping it beneath the soil, earning Rs 6000 per month.
When the 2014 floods hit Kashmir, Bilal lost his house, as well as cattle to the deluge. Nothing was left except the debris of the house.
With nowhere to go and very little money, just enough for bare necessities, he rented a boat and tied it to the dilapidated house he once used to live in. He, along with his family, spent the entire duration of the floods in the boat.
“We went from door to door to collect daily necessities for survival. Within a year, my old mother and I worked hard and built a new house with 2 rooms and a kitchen,” Bilal said.
Bilal’s other sister Rukasana is young and yet to be married. “My mother and I are working very hard so that we can save enough money for her marriage. I do not care about working hard, as long as my mother and sister are by my side.”
Wullar is the largest lake of Asia situated in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. It sustains the life of many people like Bilal, who live near it.
Bilal, who collects 12,240 kgs of trash annually, also assumes the responsibility to clean the lake, which is their main source of water, “we don’t have any source of water for domestic use. We get water from the lake”.