While conflict forced natives to explore livelihood avenues outside Kashmir non locals rushed to fill the void. Faisal Shabir Bhat spends a day at a slum in Srinagar where life is full of opportunities and surprises
Amid a huge stock pile of cardboard sheets thirty-year-old Mohammad Asad, wearing a traditional Kashmiri Pheran, is warming himself from a small bonfire.
Asad belongs to Barguna district in Bangladesh. He first came to Kashmir in 2010 and since then has been living here. He collects scrap including cardboard sheets, used plastic bottles, tyres and other used material on his cycle rickshaw from narrow lanes of the Srinagar city and makes his living by selling it.
“I travel to places like Soura and Lalbazar to collect scrap and if I have a good day at work I manage to earn between 200 and 250 rupees a day,’’ he says.
Back home he barely managed to earn enough to feed himself. There was no question of savings. In contrast, conflict ridden Kashmir offered Asad and many other migrants like him opportunities to make modest living.
“Kashmir is full of opportunities. Since I came here I have never slept empty stomach. Back home it was a routine,” says a visibly excited Asad.
On an average he earns between 5 and 6 thousand rupees a month. “Now I am able to save something for the rainy days as well,” says Asad.
After picking rags throughout the day Asad and many other people like him retire for the night to their makeshift dwellings erected on a vacant piece of land in Mehjoor Nagar.
Asad informs that the land belongs to a well known business family of Rajbagh. Presently there are about 100 households on the piece of land. Each household has to pay a rent of rupees 300 per month to the land owner.
Asad remember his arrival in valley vividly. It was amidst 2010 protests. “There was strict curfews imposed everywhere. But youngsters were protesting on the streets and everyday you would hear about killings. It was such a painful period.”
He recalls the long period of curfew when he couldn’t go to work for days.
“Kashmiri boys would throw stones at police and army men and many times we saved the boys from the police when they took shelter in our locality. However we were never harassed by the police,’’ says Asad.
Forty-year-old Naseema is one of Asad’s neighbors in the slum. Naseema, who hails from Murshidabad district of West Bengal, supports a family of four: her ailing husband and two children, by picking rags.
While Naseema and her son collects rags from around posh localities, her daughter works as a maid in Rajbagh.
“In Bengal we didn’t had enough work to feed ourselves two times a day but Kashmir is different,” says Naseema.
Naseems is fascinated by the houses people construct in Kashmir. “Wherever I go here I see huge bungalows. People here are very rich,” she says.
But for twenty-seven-year old Mohammad Ramzan, who hails from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, money is not the only motivating factor to come to Kashmir. “I used to hear a lot about beautiful landscapes of Kashmir. It fascinated me. I wanted to visit this place at least once,” says Ramzan who earned his living by pulling a rickshaw in Aligarh. “I used to earn enough to support my family. But Kashmir was always on my mind. So one day I packed my bags and came here.”
He has been in Kashmir for the past six months only but has plans to make this place as his new home. He works as a rag picker collecting used materials such as thin, cardboard boxes, bottles and cans in his rickshaw.
“This year I will bring my wife here and look for some other job as I don’t like collecting scrap,” he says.
But slums are no different from any other place. They are like small cities within a city. And in this Mehjoor Nagar slum that stands dwarfed by big residential bungalows on all sides, rules are no different.
Sitting outside a relatively modest dwelling, Mohammad Musharraf, 49, who hails from Hooghly district in West Bengal, is the oldest member of the slums. He has been living in Kashmir since last 20 years.
Like others he too started as a rag picker and then slowly graduated to a labourer. Now he is the scrap dealer who collects scrap from all the pickers and sells it to a local dealer.
Musharraf lives with his wife and children in the locality. His wife Ruqsana, 45, is among the few women in the locality who do not work. With his slightly better fortunes Musharraf managed to marry off his daughter in Kolkata last year.
His thirteen-year-old son Mohammad Muqsid is the only kid in the slum who attends a local school.
The family shifted to Mehjoor Nagar from Kursoo Rajbagh two years ago. “We shifted here as the owner of the land on which we were staying ordered us to vacate as he had to construct a hotel there,” says Ruqsana.
The whole locality comprises of about a hundred households which are visible from the Mehjoor Nagar Bund. The hutments are made from cardboard sheets polythene and other material joined together. Almost every household owns a cycle rickshaw and most of the inmates work as rag pickers. Some of the kids of the slum can be seen playing cricket on a muddy patch of land on one side of the slum. These people live in sub human conditions with no provisions to sanitation and access to clean water.
Locals in the area accuse slum dwellers of promoting immoral activities like drugs and alcohol in the area. An elder of the locality Ghulam Nabi says that the slum has become a hub of alcohol, drugs and prostitution in the area. “Although we don’t have any objection of obtaining their livelihood here but they promote immoral activities which we will not allow,” he says.
Another local Nisar Ahmad says that these slum dwellers have managed to get illegal electricity connections by bribing the power development department (PDD) officials. “It is ironical that while we struggle in dark, these slum dwellers enjoy round the clock electricity,’’ he says.
As per Nisar, the piece of land on which the slum exists belongs to two brothers Ghulam Mohammad Shiekh and Abdul Gani Sheikh of Rajbagh.
He says that while the owners of the land get a decent amount of money as rent for their land it is the locals who have to suffer.
The imam (priest) of the local mosque Abdul Aziz Malik accused these slum dwellers of spreading immorality in the area.
These people are often drunk and indulge in all sort of immoral activities like prostitution and drugs. Besides the slum has become a favourite spot for all the drunkards and drug addicts. “Recently one of the men from the slum died and when I along with some other people reached the spot we could smell a strong odour of liquor. He probably must have died from drinking excessive alcohol,” says Aziz.
The police officials at the Sadder police station say that if the people of the area have any complaint regarding the slum dwellers they should approach the police station and lodge a written complaint. Regarding the death of the person in the slum, a police official said that the man died a natural death and they have started investigations into the death of the person.
The Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) presently does not have any data about the number of non-state subject slum dwellers in the city. Chief Sanitation Officer (SMC) Ajaz Ahmad Shah says that the Municipal Corporation is in the process of registering all the non-local slum dwellers in the city.