Silent Sufferers

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After more than 100 days of lockdown, as parts of Kashmir witness semblance of normalcy, people are finally out of their closets to tell their stories of loss and livelihood. Shams Irfan reports the crisis that families silently survived since August 5, when the status of Jammu and Kashmir was changed and downgraded

A deserted view of bus stand Parimpora Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Almost a month after Delhi stripped Kashmir of its exclusivity and downgraded it to a Union Territory status, Tahir, 40, was among the first ones to drive a taxi between Anantnag and Srinagar. It was not an easy thing to do given the shutdown and partial restrictions. But he was helpless.

On August 5, Tahir woke up to find himself caged inside his house as a strict curfew was put in place outside. This meant no work for Tahir, a driver for an Anantnag based transporter.

“That day, I had just Rs 300 in my pocket,” said Tahir, during a recent journey between Anantnag and Srinagar. A father of three daughters and a son, Tahir knew the curfew is going to be a long one. But he could do nothing. As days passed and curfew continued, Tahir’s family exhausted all their stocks. In the absence of cash-in-hand debt with local shopkeepers started to pile-up. “I was helpless as I am the only earning hand in my family. And I was without work like everyone else.”

Like everyone else, Tahir waited for the situation to improve on its own, but when it didn’t, Tahir started to get nervous.

By late August, with just Rs 30 left in his pocket and stock of essentials fast depleting at home, Tahir decided to find an alternative. “I worked as a labourer and helped farmers harvest their crop,” said Tahir. “It was a back-breaking job but I had no option but to earn for my family.”

Only Tahir’s son is enrolled in a private school. His three daughters stay at home. “I don’t have enough resources to educate them all,” said Tahir in a matter of fact manner.

Since early September, Tahir is back on the road driving taxi which earns him a fixed monthly income. But there are not many people travelling between Anantnag and Srinagar.

“At the peak of the crisis, I suggested my wife let’s fast for at least two days in a week so that we don’t have to ask for a loan from friends and relatives anymore,” said Tahir sadly.

With meagre earnings, Tahir is unsure if his employer would pay him his monthly salary on time. “I used to make a few extra hundreds on each trip when the situation was normal,” said Tahir. “But as of now lesser people commute, which means fewer earnings for me.”

In the last more than 100 days when life remained completely paralysed, there were certain sections of the society that suffered more than others. Small and big buses, unlike Sumo Taxi drivers, were completely off the roads. Construction labour fond no work as the sector was seriously impaired by the situation. While school managements charged fees, most of the teachers complained about irregular payments.

Families having chronic patients at home were in a much bigger crisis. They could not earn but had to manage the costly medicines for their ailing members. The lack of communication added to their miseries as they could not connect with relatives and friends. Most of them ended up hugely in debt.

In certain localities, the local mohalla committees did join hands to take care of the underprivileged lot. These initiatives, unlike past, were very restricted and quite a few. This added to the sufferings of the people, living hand to mouth, and finding no work. This situation led to sort of a depression in individuals who were the sole breadwinners – a concern about how to manage the daily life.

The same concerns of earning for his family forced Ghulam Hussain Bhat, 48, a vegetable vendor from Roni Mohallah in Dal Lake interiors to push his cart on Srinagar roads during early days of shutdown. “It was a huge risk but it was a matter of survival for my family,” said Bhat.

A father of four daughters and a son, Bhat would sneak out of his home early morning and reach Srinagar’s vegetable market to buy stocks for retail. All-day he would roam in uptown localities selling vegetables. It would earn him a few hundred rupees in profit which helped him feed his family.

Fruit Mandi, Parimpora Srinagar elusive of any business activity. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

In the last week of August, while coming back from day’s labour, Bhat was stopped by some angry young men. “They damaged my cart completely,” said Bhat. “I somehow managed to save myself and reached home.”

This episode left a deep mark on Bhat’s mind as his only source of income, his cart was gone. He locked himself in his small house for days refusing to come out.

When Bhat’s neighbours came to know about his situation, they decided to help. “I don’t own any land unlike other Dal dwellers,” said Bhat. “My family was solely dependent on my cart and what I earned.”

Keeping Bhat’s self-respect in view, locals decided to employ him for odd jobs like as a labourer on a construction site, and pay him more than what they would pay others. This kept his hearth burning and his family alive. “My family would have died of starvation if my locality would not have helped in time,” said Bhat painfully. “I am trying to put together money for a new cart but I am too afraid to go out still.”

Bhat now has his hopes pinned at his nine-year-old son. He studies in a government-run school but Bhat sees no future for him there. “In a few years he has to ultimately quit and help me out to feed the family,” said Bhat.

Bhat still confines himself to his immediate neighbourhood. “I feel as if I would be caught again and harmed,” said Bhat. “That incident keeps on repeating in my mind whenever I think of visiting the vegetable market.”

In congested Zaina Kadal locality of Srinagar’s downtown, Farooq, 50, is struggling to cope up with the depression and losses as his provisional store remained shut for over two months since August 5. A father of two daughters and a son, Farooq would manage to provide for his family from his earnings at his provisional store.

But in 2018, after a part of his shop got damaged in a fire incident he decided to shift to a safer location in the main market. He had no idea that moving from a congested locality to the main market would prove costly very shortly.

“Even during strict curfews, our old shops would function as it was located inside a residential area,” said Farooq’s daughter Bisma, 25, a private teacher. “But since we moved to the main market, we couldn’t open it during regular strike calls even.”

Like all other shops in the market, Farooq’s provisional store too remained shut continuously. For the most part, there was a strict curfew in place in old city areas. People preferred buying provisions from shops located inside residential areas.

Hustle and bustle at Sunday Market, Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“My father went into a depression from the day when he first opened the shutters almost after forty days,” said Bisma in a concerned voice. “Most of the perishable stock like pulses, dried milk, eggs, biscuits, rice, was not worth selling. There were rats everywhere in the shop.”

That evening when Farooq came home, he looked exhausted and old. He spent the evening alone without taking food. He was deeply saddened by his situation. “He started talking about survival and earnings for the first time in our life,” said Bisma. “Since that day he is not the same person anymore. He would hardly talk with us and keep to himself most of the time.”

In order to cheer him up, Bisma and her siblings got part of the salvaged stock back to their home and converted one of their rooms into a make-shift shop. “He now sells it from home but it is not like old times anymore,” said Bisma sadly.

What added to family’s financial woes was that Bisma’s employer didn’t pay her since August, as schools continue to remain shut even after three months. “At least I could have contributed my bit in these crisis times,” said Bisma.

Every month, out of her meagre salary, Bisma used to save a few hundred rupees for emergency situation. Her entire savings are gone in the last three months. “I am not even sure if I would be able to get paid in the near future or not,” said Bisma.

Bisma’s younger sister and brother are both college students. She is trying her best to help them continue their studies.

“It will not be easy given the financial crisis in the family. I am pinning my hope on Allah. He will surely find a way and our family will be happy again,” said Bisma with a hint of hope in her voice.

The same hope keeps Shabir Ahmad Bhat, 31, going as he desperately travels between Ganderbal and parts of Srinagar to collect donations for 47 specially-abled girls enrolled at Jammu and Kashmir Atehad Handicapped Association (JKAHA).

Being a founding member of the association, Shabir, a resident of Baramulla, who needs crutches to walk, is knocking on every donor’s door to keep everyone at the residential facility fed.

“These girls are physically handicapped and stay at the centre where I teach them tailoring,” said Shabir. “Their lodging and food were managed out of donations from different people.”

For the first month, Shabir couldn’t move as there was no local transport available. Stock available at the centre was consumed in the first fifteen days. All he was left with was a few sacks of rice and pulses. “We managed for a few days with just rice in lunch and dinner till restrictions were eased,” said Shabir. “Then I moved out and got in touch with some locals who helped.”

In the last two weeks, Shabir has visited almost every single donor whom he knew. “Almost everyone has suffered in the last three months no matter how rich or poor he/she is,” said Shabir. “That is why I cannot press people for money as I used to earlier. I know everyone is going through difficult times.”

Despite the handicap Shabir keeps trying, knocking one door at a time. “I cannot give up hope as I have a large family to feed,” said Shabir thoughtfully.

It was pure desperation that forced Abdul Rashid Sofi, 42, a resident of Qazi Bazaar in Budgam, to finally restart his roadside kiosk after 96 days of staying at home since August 5.

He sells mounji’gear (a local snack) from a roadside stall near busy Nowgham Chowk. He is assisted by his son, who dropped out of school in Class 9, for lack of resources.

“We are finished. Whatever savings I had accumulated since 2016 are gone in the last three months,” said Sofi in an alarming tone. “How am I supposed to feed my family now?”

Shuttered shops at Jamia Market Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Sofi has to feed a large family of nine including his aged parents, his unmarried sister, his three daughters, son and wife. Till a few years back, Sofi’s father used to help by doing manual labour. But after his surgery a few years back, he now stays at home. “It was then I had to get my son out of school and make him work with me,” said Sofi. “I cannot feed everyone alone.”

His eldest daughter studies in ninth class in a private school. But he has no way to pay for their tuition fees. “Where would I manage her school fees as I have not earned a single penny in the last 96 days?” asks Sofi angrily. “It is not old days any more as everyone is spending miserly. I don’t even earn one-tenth of what I used to during normal days.”

Sofi is not alone in facing acute financial crisis during the last three months. He could count at least ten other people he knew who had the same stories to tell. “We belong to the class if we don’t earn in the day we won’t have dinner,” said Sofi. “Now imagine how we would have managed without work for over three months.”

(Some names in the story have been changed on request.)

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