The Groundbreakers

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After creating its own identity in the situation that engulfed Kashmir in recent past, Sonawari belt suffered silently under an exploitative broker rule pushing the artisan-peasant class into abject poverty. Equations started changing after an NGO appeared on the scene post 2014-floods. Shams Irfan and Muhammad Raafi visit the dusky interiors to report the crisis and the change that it is undergoing for some time

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KL Images: Bilal Bahadur

It is afternoon and the only sound one can hear in Payeen Nowgam village in Sonawari tehsil of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, is of ducks, dogs and handlooms. Rest, it is silent.

Almost all houses, single-storey mud-and-brick, are sans boundary walls, making it easy for visitors to pass through the village. Every courtyard has a pen, a cowshed, a devri stone mortar and wooden pestle, a few stacks of dried grass for cattle, half a dozen ducks, and a modest house, stuck in time. Inside the house, men and women sitting in threes and fours are busy weaving carpets on a handloom wearing exhaustive looks.

Their sullen faces, sunken eyes, stooped necks, and dishevelled appearances, are in contrast with colours they work on to create intricate patterns on a carpet. “We are a forgotten lot,” says Abdul Majid Dar, 35, a carpet weaver living in a two-storey mud-and-brick house with his three brother, three sisters, father and mother. “This village is a forsaken place.”

Dar, who has never stepped inside a school, and outside his village, earns his living by working on the loom eight hours a day. “I know nothing but how to weave a carpet,” says Dar, while continuously rubbing his neck and eyes. “It pains.”

Along with his three brothers, Dar is currently working on a six by nine feet carpet. “We will get Rs 750 per sq feet as labour. Rest you do the calculation,” he says.

The carpet, which will take almost three months to complete, will fetch Dar and his brothers’ just Rs 40,500. “It is impossible to survive like this,” says Dar. Once the carpet is finished, Dar and his brothers, approach a local broker or Wasta, for more work. “We get work through Wastas only.”

Over the years, Wastas (Masters) or the brokers working as link between weavers and carpet dealers have become symbol of exploitation for people like Dar.

A Wasta takes orders from Srinagar-based carpet dealers for as high as Rs 1700 per sq feet, and gets it done from weavers for less than half the price. “Without touching a loom, he earns more than us,” Dar says.

Pattan-Vintage-look

Less than half-a-mile away, in nearby Nowgam village, Ghulam Mohammad Pathan, 38, a carpet weaver, is busy discussing ideas with his group members. Pathan’s Chakaan Group has 37 members, all carpet weavers.

During September 2014 floods, after submerging south Kashmir and Srinagar city, water finally took permanent refuge in low-lying Sonawari tehsil. Almost two years later, flood waters are still drenching the fields.

“We lost everything to floods: our crops, cattle, our shelters, everything is destroyed,” says Pathan pointing toward a small tin-shed he has been living in since then.

When the water receded, Pathan and other villagers slowly started coming back to their devastated houses, to start afresh. “But it was not easy. We had nothing left,” says Pathan. “Even the crop was gone.”

Then, one late afternoon in September 2014, a team of an NGO, Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), came visiting to the area…

Pattan-inner-villages

A dusty road, carpeted with boulders of uneven sizes, enters Najan village in Pattan area of Bandipora district. Signs of September 2014 floods are still glaring.

Near the village square, inside a double-storey house, around thirty people have assembled for a scheduled meeting with volunteers of IGSSS.

These meetings are part of the efforts that the NGO is doing to help villagers get back with their lives. Post-floods, IGSSS is working in the area to help in relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding devastated Sonawari belt.

“This area was completely devastated,” recalls Yasir Qureshi, J&K head, IGSSS, who dispatched a team there to assess post-flood situation.

Once done with assessment, the team met at their Srinagar office and began packing relief boxes for distribution. The box contained hygiene kits, kitchen equipments, dry ration, mink blankets, solar lamps, etc.

“There was nothing but mud and flood waters all around,” says Rafiq Ahmad, 35, Livelihood Officer IGSSS, who was a part of the team that visited the flood-affected area.

As imagined, distribution part turned out to be a challenging task for Yasir and his team members. “People would fight with us,” Yasir continues. “They would demand two, at times, even three boxes.”

Till the time relief part was over, Yasir and his team members were in dilemma whether the boxes will actually reach the deserving people or not.

Finally, when the relief distribution part was done, Yasir and his team members, who were moved by the plight of villagers, decided to start rehabilitation process immediately. “They had lost their means of livelihood. We wanted to provide them the same.”

However, rehabilitating thousands of families was never a cakewalk. It needed proper planning, workforce and long term intervention.

The most challenging belt viz-a-viz rehabilitation was in impoverished areas like Najan, Nowgam and Payeen villages, thriving on carpet weaving, agriculture, or manual labour. “We then created rehabilitation programmes keeping in mind their individual skills,” says Yasir.

Poly-House-Pattan

After identifying 2090 families dependent on farming, IGSSS provided Seed Support (vegetables, paddy and fertilizers) to them costing NGO Rs 67 lakh. “They taught us new ways of farming as well,” says Muhammad Ishaq Malla, 32, a farmer from Nowgam village, owning eight kanals of land, who was given quality seeds and 85kg of fertilizers.

To improve the produce, IGSSS introduced System Rice Intensification (SRI) technique in the area. “SRI is a climate-smart, agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of rice,” informs Rifat Hamid, local organizer of IGSSS. “Production increases by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients.”

SRI was first introduced on two kanals of land owned by Malla. The results were extraordinary, says Mukhtar, Associate Coordinator, IGSSS, the production was almost double. For 2016, he says, the target area for SRI is 130 kanals of land.

“There is visible change in production,” says Malla, the farmer. Earlier, using old farming technique, Malla could hardly meet his family’s foodgrain need. “Now I can even save and sell.”

Yasir, the Kashmir IGSSS boss, says the NGO also provided hundred farmers, on whose land SRI technique would be used, Cono Weeders, at a cost of Rs 1.45 lakh.

The effort has helped in creation of various small groups in the areas contributing amongst themselves to secure their future. One such group is Aftaab Zamindar Group. The thirteen member group headed by Bashir Ahmad Hajam, 35, meets twice-a-month to discuss farming issues.

“Each member also contributes Rs 50 per month toward the group’s joint account,” informs Hajam. The money saved is then used for the welfare of the group members, or given as loan to a needy member. “This saves us from getting into debt trap of exploitative money lenders.”

Poor-Family-Pattan

The next major intervention was done in vegetable farming helping 2090 families in Sonawari earn decently. Apart from giving free seeds, IGSSS constructed five poly-houses in the area. “We helped them adopt new techniques in vegetable cultivation,” says Mukhtar. “They were taught to turn household waste and cow-dung into organic fertilizer.”

The welcomed change paved way to number of home-made poly-houses in the area. But, the NGO is far from done in the area. It wants to engage more families in future to help them take up more productive ways of vegetable cultivation. “You just have to make them understand that a small change can actually make a significant difference,” feels Mukhtar.

The beneficiaries were also given farming tool kits, time-to-time assistance, monetary support whenever needed, expertise support, capacity building trainings etc, costing IGSSS around Rs 23.34 lakh.

The third programme saw landless families get livestock rearing support from the organization. A total of 1691 eves and rams (sheep) were distributed among 654 families, at a cost of Rs 1.11 crore.

Nazir A Malla, 32, one of the beneficiaries of livestock scheme, was forced to give up carpet weaving because of back problem. He now earns his living by rearing two eves and one ram. Similarly, Ali Muhammad Pathan, 40, was given one eve and a ram a year ago, to help manage his family. “It has multiplied and now I own four sheep,” Patahn says.

IGSSS data bank maintains that over 70 percent of the livestock has multiplied successfully.

Carpet-Weaving-pattan

The next important intervention IGSSS made in Sonawari area was distribution of Bee Keeping Units (boxes) and Paraphernalia. A total of 330 Bee Keeping Units, were distributed among 66 families. It cost the organization Rs 19.12 lakh. Each family was given five units, each costing Rs 30 thousand. Also the beneficiaries were given gloves, extractors, net, and a uniform.

Ajaz Ahmad Sofi, 24, a labourer by profession and part of fourteen members Assel Khan Apairy Group started keeping bees as part time job. He shortly became an expert, helping others to perfect their skills. Sofi is keen to move out of his village and create a brand of his own. “I want to export the honey to outside markets,” says Sofi. “Before the first produce is extracted, I want to get in touch with buyers.”

An ’empowered’ Sofi is upbeat about his future and wants to flip the poverty image of his family. Like him, Showkat Sofi, wants to get linked with the market with IGSSS’s help. “We are illiterate people,” Sofi says, “and quite prone to exploitation. Let IGSSS take care of marketing for us initially.”

Equally significant step by IGSSS is development of Functional Literacy Centers. These centers help villagers learn reading and writing to improve their lives. “We have so far trained 250 weavers,” says Yasir. “They can at least write and manage their accounts now.”

Training-Session

When IGSSS came to Nowgam village, they found it a total mess, where people had lost both “livelihood” and “hope”. The NGO decided to get involved on a long term basis. The first objective was to help them get back on their feet. First, the NGO gave a financial assistance for post-flood reconstruction. “We distributed cash, household items, bedding, blankets, tin-sheets, clothes, water purifiers, solar lamps, ration etc so that they can start their lives again,” says Mukhtar.

Once that was done, the second phase involved helping villagers earn sustainable livelihood. This part was difficult given the nature of their skills. Almost ninety percent of people in Sonawari area are carpet weavers, with less than two kanals average household landholdings.

Interestingly, most of the agriculture land in and around Nowgam village is property of Rakhs and Farms department.

During Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s reign (1885-1925), this land was given to villagers for farming with a condition: 30 kgs of rice (per kanal) must go into Mahraja’s coffers.

Mahraja is gone, but the practice survived. “They (villagers) have to give one fourth of the produce to the government,” says Mohammad Muzafar Hurra, Assistant Director, Rakhs and Farms department Kashmir. “The land is still owned by the government. Villagers who till it have no propriety rights over it.” A tree planted in this land is also divided in the same manner when sold, he says. “We take one fourth of the sale amount from the farmer.”

Perhaps that is why Sonawari has remained one of the most impoverished belts in Kashmir, concludes IGSSS. To help Sonawari catch-up with the rest of Kashmir viz-a-viz development, the NGO introduced a financial model for the villagers.

“We helped them create small groups keeping in view their skills,” says Rifat. A group has a leader, a treasurer keeping accounts of member’s monthly savings. Group members meet once a week or a month, depending upon the urgency. During these meetings, issues like marriage of son or daughter of a group member, adopting a new farming method, sanitation problems, water woes, faulty drainage etc are discussed. Most importantly members discuss ways of getting out of a Wasta’s debt cycle. Thanks to Wastas, says Pathan, the carpet weaver, almost every villager is in debt of over Rs 1 lakh.

Before IGSSS came to Sonwari, Pathan worked for a local Wasta. “I am still repaying debt my father has taken from the Wasta for marriage of my sister,” says Pathan. “It is a vicious cycle that never gets paid off.”

With new found financial independence, Pathan and other group members have started to work independently, bypassing exploitative Wastas completely.

There are around 350 such individual groups in Sonawari belt. These groups are created on the basis of skills and occupation. IGSSS then pass on the financial assistance and other benefits accordingly.

Take for instance Pathan’s Chakaan Group. Each member in Pathan’s group was given three sheep (two ewes and one ram), besides a financial assistance of Rs 13,800 per head, post-floods. Pathan, a carpet weaver since nine, is the head of his group. Each member pools Rs 100 per month toward a joint account IGSSS helped them open. “We use this money to help members whenever need arises,” Pathan says. So far Chakaan Group has managed to save around Rs 17,000 by means of monthly contributions. “Once we are able to save something substantial, we will help members to pay their debts.”

Yasir-Reshi-Regional-Manager-Jammu-and-Kashmir-IGSSS

But not all are as lucky as Pathan. Abdul Razaq Bhat, 60, a carpet weaver from Nowgam village, took Rs 1 lakh loan from Wasta on his daughter’s marriage. “I worked day and night and managed to pay him back Rs 50 thousand,” says Bhat.

But, after the floods, restless Wasta started threatening Bhat with penalty. “I was working on a 6×9 feet carpet that he had given me,” says Bhat. “It got delayed, first because of marriage then floods.”

Once Bhat handed over the finished product, Wasta deducted from his wages on pretext of unsatisfactory results. “How can I repay my loan when I am not even getting my labour,” asks Bhat. “It is a trap that these Wastas keep us in forever.”

After IGSSS came to his village, Bhat has stopped working for Wasta. Instead his group was given a mechanized loom free of cost by the organization worth Rs 1 lakh. “They also provided me with material to start my first carpet,” he says.

Interestingly, Bhat worked for a Wasta earning Rs 700 per sq feet, which is less than half of what he will get through IGSSS facilitated buyers. “I am already in touch with a buyer who has agreed to pay 1550 per sq feet,” says Bhat, currently working on a 6×9 carpet with three other weavers from his group.

Since the creation of Chakaan Group, some six-month back, its members feel both empowered and independent. During one of their monthly meetings, Pathan and his group members discussed ways to deal with water stagnation in nearby government school compound since September 2014. “We got together and dug a tunnel to let it flow into a nearby Nallah,” says Pathan with an air of accomplishment.

Sitting at a distance, another member of Chakaan Group, Mohammad Maqbool Pathan, 40, is listening patiently, with a pensive look on his face. A father of seven – two sons and five daughter – Maqbool owes a local Wasta Rs 1.20 lakh.

“I took this money as advance after my house collapsed in floods,” says Maqbool. Now, he helplessly works sixteen hours a day to get out of the debt. “It might take me years to clear the debt.”

Another restless face in the group belongs to fifty-five-year-old Khatija Begum.

Khatija’s husband Ghulam Hassan Dar died of a heart-attack when he saw his house collapse in 2014 floods. “He is gone but left me seven daughters to feed,” says Khatija, “and Wasta’s debt.”

Her only source of income comes from two kanals of land (owned by Rakhs and Farms department), where she grows vegetables using seeds and tools provided by IGSSS. “They also gave me two sheep (eves) to rear.”

Unlike other womenfolk in Nowgam village, Khatija cannot work on a handloom, as she has to look after her daughters. “One of my daughters is specially-abled. I have to stay around for her sake.”

With the help of locals and IGSSS, Khatija has built a two-room makeshift accommodation for her family. “I just want to live a dignified life,” Khatija says, with hope.

So far IGSSS has given 40 looms to 138 beneficiary families, at a cost of Rs 22.20 lakh. The NGO has set up Artisan Production & Development Centres, where they impart trainings to the weavers.

A few months back, disturbed by the intervention of IGSSS that helped locals work independently, around thirty local Wastas got together to chart out a counter strategy.

They decided, if a weaver leaves his Wasta (master), without paying his debt, or without his consent, he should not be given work by anyone else. “They basically organized themselves against the weavers,” says Rifat, now organiser of IGSSS. “The aim is to tighten their grip over poor villagers.”

Mukhtar, an Associate Coordinator IGSSS, has extensively travelled in Sonawari belt, feels that poverty of weavers suits many people including Wastas.

“Till these villagers are dependent on others for their livelihood, they have to surrender before vested powers,” feels Mukhtar.

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