The New Volunteers

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Watching the farmers facing a crisis in paddy harvesting, groups of well educated youth started helping them volunatrilty and the trend has the potential to reclaim jobs that Kashmir had given up in last three decades, reports Shams Irfan

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Every morning a group of ten undergraduate students led by Asif, 23, walk towards nearby paddy fields looking for work. They are not labourers. They are volunteers. Rather than earning, their objective is to help farmers manage acute labour shortage.

Since last week of September, when the paddy crop ripens and is ready for harvest, groups like Asif’s have become a common sight in almost every village where harvesting was almost entirely done by non-local labourers.

However, the mass migration of the seasonal labourers from Kashmir after abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, has left a void at the peak of apple and paddy harvest season, two major labour-intensive activities in Kashmir.

With schools, colleges and universities shut, students like Asif are trying their best to fill that void. “Just two decades back everyone in Kashmir used to help in farming. We were not always dependent on non-local labourers for getting things done,” said Asif sarcastically. Asif who is eldest in his volunteer group is pursuing masters from Kashmir University.

Asif is unsure where from the idea of the peculiar volunteerism came to him. But he remembers convincing his friends after someone told him that students are helping farmers in Kulgam belt. “I found it a novel way to utilize our time in current crisis,” said Asif. “We started as volunteers and still consider ourselves the same. Earning money is not our only motivation. We genuinely want to help people who are in distress.”

In late September, Asif’sgroup started by helping a local farmer harvest his paddy crop. The poor farmer couldn’t pay them anything but ensured they are fed well during three days of work. “We only charge those people who are well-off and can afford to pay,” said Asif. “For those who cannot afford we do it for free.”

In Mirbazar area of Kulgam, Abdul Hamid is busy harvesting paddy with his son, daughter and wife. He has not been into his fields for harvesting for the last ten years. Hamid, a contractor, is sitting at home as all construction work came to a grinding halt in Kashmir since August 5. “Usually I would be busy at this time of the year and the harvesting would be done by non-local labourers,” said Hamid.

However, when Hamid couldn’t manage to find labourers for paddy harvesting, he decided to do it himself. It was not easy as he thought. “I have done farming for most part of my adult life. But reviving it after such a long gap is tiresome,” said Hamid.

At the end of the first day’s work Hamid was almost in tears when his teenage son Sahil’s classmates and friends came to his rescue. “They came and helped us with the harvesting purely to ease our pain,” said Hamid. “I tried to give them some money but they refused out of respect.”

The efforts put in by Sahil’s friends started a ripple effect in the village with a number of boys replicating them.

“We have become over dependent on non-local labourers for getting those things done which we used to do ourselves till recently,” said Abdul AhadWani, 75, a farmer in Tral. “It is a shame when a farmer’s family hires non-local labourers for work.”

Wani said he has never employed any non-local labourers on his fields as everything is being done by his family. “Two of my sons are government employees but they too do their bit when it is time to cultivate or harvest,” said Wani proudly.

Wani is happy to see young and educated boys help people in times of crisis. “It is a good sight to see young boys toiling in the fields,” said Wani. “I hope once the situation improves, this enthusiasm stays.”

Apart from seeking help from volunteer groups like Asif’s, villagers are reviving traditional practice of haleh-sheri(collective community efforts) to overcome labour crisis.

“This (haleh-sheri) has helped people bond with each other like old times,” said Asif, a teacher from Arwani village of Kulgam.

“In today’s fast life people hardly had time for themselves. But it is good to see them come together and help each other in crisis. This will make our social fabric even stronger.”

Asif laments the fact that Kashmiris have become complacent by outsourcing all labour intensive work to outsiders. “We have destroyed our work culture completely,” said Asif.

“There are over five lakh unemployed youth in Kashmir. Ironically same number of non-locals earn thousands in Kashmir and help their families back home live decently. Why can’t our boys replace them?”

Just two decades back the entire farming activity was done by locals without any outside help. Entire family used to get involved from cultivation to harvest.

However, this trend changed after thousands of families were disintegrated and forced to migrate from rural areas to urban pockets of Srinagar during peak militancy. Staying in villages became unsafe, and fields and farms became a no-go place for even  owners. Within a few years, while the Kashmir was witnessing a bloodbath, a small but steady number of non-local labourers started to arrive in Kashmir. They were both skilled and unskilled labourers. With Kashmiris busy in saving themselves, these non-local labourers helped stabilize key agriculture and horticulture sector by working on the farms. Despite a large chunk of local population unemployed, within no time these non-local labourers became indispensable to Kashmir’s economy.

On August 5, when these non-local labourers left en-mass, they left behind a helpless population who do not wish to work anymore. “We have an attitude of an Arab sheikh but without petro dollars to back it,” said Wani sarcastically.

But Wani is hopeful that efforts of groups like Asif and Shail’s will help people realise where they are headed.

“It is a win-win situation for us. While we are doing our bit for our fellow citizens, we are also earning some extra money for future,” said Asif with a smile on his face.

Till the time he is back to his books, his best companion is sickle and ropes.

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