Stand Still Lives

A gourd (kaddu) grown around a passenger bus during summer 2016 unrest.

Burhan Wani’s killing literally froze Kashmir in a time capsule. And public transport was no exception. But the plight of hands behind the wheels got lost in the maze of everyday tragedies. Heena Muzzafar tries to highlight a few such stories.

One afternoon in August, 2016, when Nazir Ahmad, 50, a bus driver, went out to check his vehicle, parked a few meters away from his house, in a vacant plot since Burhan Wani’s killing, he was surprised!

“It had grown a gourd (kaddu) around its windshield and front tire,” said Ahmad, who clicked a picture of it for future reference. “The gourd and wild bushes that have grown around its tires reflect our condition perfectly.”

Since July 9, a day after Burhan was killed in encounter in Bamdoora village of Islamabad district, Kashmir came to a standstill, literally. And so did thousands of taxis, buses and autos that move Kashmir.

“I have three daughters. They are in private schools. How will I pay their fee and manage their expenses,” he asks. “There was no one on the roads. Going out meant risking your life and property.”

Nazir had purchased the bus in partnership with Fayaz Ahmad, 50, after procuring loan from a local bank. “We are not able to pay instalments since July. Now the bank has started to harass us,” alleges Nazir.

But Nazir and Fayaz are not alone. Almost every other transporter has the same story to tell. “Despite sitting idle for last five months authorities are harassing us. They have increased the rates of fitness, and other taxes,” alleges Nazir.

Earlier a commercial vehicle’s annual fitness fee was Rs 500 (buses), Rs 250 (taxis), but the rates have been revised during the unrest. Now an additional amount of Rs 600 a year is charged from the transporters, alleges Nazir. “Despite knowing well the situation in Kashmir since July, we have been fined for not renewing our permits on time,” alleges Nazir.

Two passenger taxis set ablaze in Srinagar on Oct 17, 2016. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

But the main issue concerning commercial vehicle owners is how to repay loans. At Shah-e-Hamdan Sumo Stand in Srinagar, which has 100 taxis registered with it, 75 are financed by different banks.

Remaining 25 are owned by private players, who lease it out to individual drivers against a share. “It’s the drivers who ultimately suffer,” said Nazir.

Mohammad Rafiq, 32, who used his savings to feed a family four members during the unrest, now struggles to manage tuition fee of his two daughters. “I am left with no option but to ask for money from friends and relatives,” said Rafiq.

Rafiq was already struggling to pay his debt, he had taken to purchase a taxi which got damaged in September 2014 floods.

“I applied for a fresh loan in 2015 to buy a new taxi. Now with no work since last five months I am at a loss how to repay loan,” said Rafiq.

When the pressure to feed his family reached its peak, Rafiq started ferrying passengers during relaxation hours two months back. “Some boys caught hold of me and broke all the glasses of my taxi,” said Rafiq. “I lost more than I had earned.”

A number of drivers started doing menial jobs like working as construction labourers to support their families during the unrest.

Mehraj, who is the sole bread earner for a family of six, worked at a construction site, earning Rs 450 a day to support his children’s education and meet other household expenses. “My son and daughter study in a private school. It is expensive. How am I supposed to meet the expenses,” asks Mehraj, a taxi driver, who used to earn Rs 800 a day before July 8.

Mehraj is thankful that even during the unrest he managed to get a job, even though as a labourer. “If I had not worked, my family would have starved,” said Mehraj, showing scars on his hands. “This is what you get when you work with cement.”

Even before the unrest, Mukhtar Ahmad Dar, 38, was struggling to feed his large family of seven members, including his ailing father. “I had to undergo a surgery during the unrest,” said Dar.

After the surgery Dar was advised not to drive a taxi anymore. To compensate the loss, Shah-i-Hamdan taxi stand appointed Dar its chairman. “I get a salary of Rs 4000 a month,” said Dar.

But, as Dar’s salary is dependent on number of outside taxis parked in Shah-i-Hamdan stand, he was not paid since July. “Our taxi stand was closed, so how can I ask for a salary,” asks Dar.

Despite hardships, the unrest helped drivers to unite in more than one ways. Mehraj-u-din Baba, an elderly taxi driver, who usually earned Rs 900 a day, struggled to feed his family of seven during the unrest. Baba and other like him were helped by other drivers, who would collect amongst themselves and then distribute the same. “Any driver who was a bit financially sound contributed for his not so fortunate colleagues,” said Mehraj-u-Din, 39, a taxi driver.

The link between drivers who had no other source of income and those who were slightly well-off was Jahangir, 35, a driver, who also manages the finances of the taxi stand. “I have record of every driver in our stand,” said Jahangir.

Jahangir’s job was to connect the have’s with have nots during the unrest and make sure that nobody sleeps on an empty stomach. “People contributed wholeheartedly,” recalls Jahangir. “Some gave cash, while others contributed goods and eatables.”

But while making sure the survival of other drivers Jahangir had to feed his family too. “I used my savings to keep my family out of crisis,” said Jahangir. “I am yet to pay school and tuition fee of my daughters.”

The remains of taxis set afire by unknown persones during summer 2016 unrest. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

But once the survival part was taken care of by community efforts, the second challenge faced by drives was how to manage monthly instalments. “I am afraid that bank will confiscate my taxi as I have not repaid my loan,” said Javaid Ahmad, 32. “I literally managed my house by spending from my savings. Now even that is gone.”

Same woes trouble Mushtaq Ahmad, 42, who left carpet weaving after undergoing two surgeries, and started working as manager at Shah-i-Hamdan taxi stand. But Mushtaq’s salary too is dependent on normalcy, as taxi stand manages its income by charging vehicles parking fee. “No work means, no taxis in the stand. Which means no salary,” said Mushtaq, a diabetic patient who suffers from cardiac problem.

Mushtaq, who has to feed a family of six, including a mentally challenged brother, was in tears when his kids broke their piggy banks and offered him money for essentials. “I felt ashamed of myself at that time,” said Mushtaq. “But I was helpless.”

Left with no savings, Mushtaq is sceptical about his kid’s future, as he struggles to manage their school fee.

Despite Hurriyat relaxing the ‘protest calendar’ by announcing five full working days, a number of transporters are still afraid to work.

“We have around 4,000 mini buses (with 24 seat capacity) and 2,000 big buses (with 52 seat capacity) in the valley, out of which only 70 percent are back on roads,” says Bashir Ahmad Matta, Chairman, All Kashmir Transport Association and Western bus service, Srinagar. “Drivers are still afraid of becoming a soft target for both sides.”

On the first day of work after almost five months, Mehraj was fined for not renewing his road permit!


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