The Tulip Hands

As thousands of people enjoy the colourful Tulips bloom in millions amid high-cost celebrations, the din prevents garden managers from listening to the plight of fewer than 50 gardeners who work round the year and get peanuts in return, reports Umar Mukhtar

Artists performing during the Tulip Festival held in Tulip garden on the foothills of Zabarvan in Srinagar on Saturday, April 3, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The sunken eyes, wrinkled face and rough hands tell the tale of the hard life of Abdus Salaam, 50, a ‘casual labour’ at Srinagar’s famous Tulip garden. It has emerged as a favourite haunt of the tourists to the extent that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi tweeted his invite to the tourists.

“Whenever you get the opportunity, do visit Jammu and Kashmir and witness the scenic Tulip festival. In addition to the tulips, you will experience the warm hospitality of the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Prime Minister, Narendra Modi tweeted. “Tomorrow, 25th March is special for Jammu and Kashmir. A majestic tulip garden on the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains will open for visitors. The garden will see over 15 lakh flowers of more than 64 varieties in bloom.”

Located on the Zabarwan foothills, the garden– a key initiative of Ghulam Nabi Azad, overlooks the serene Dal lake and looks like a painting from the skies.

=Every morning, Salaam leaves home at Batapora, for tulip garden located 15 km away. He boards a cab and reaches the destination in half an hour. Salaam does not want to skip a day even if he is not feeling well.

“I am a casual labourer,” Salaam said.“If I will miss a day, they will cut it from my wages.” He is paid Rs 6750 a month, around one-third of what he would fetch from the open market with the same skill-set.

Growing Tulips is like raising children. It is a highly sensitive flower that has the shortest life. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

This has been a routine for Salaam for the last 15 years. In March 2007, he was ‘appointed’ as a casual labourer in the department of floriculture. Then, it was a moment of joy for him and for his whole family. Salaam distributed sweets and relatives came to his home to congratulate him. But little did he know that this joy would be short-lived like the tulips he grows. Tulips do not live beyond which 20 days.

Out of the Rs 6750, Salaam has to pay around Rs 100 per day on fare from home to tulip garden and back.  He has a family of five to feed. All the expenses are supposed to be met out of this ‘salary’ as there is no other source of income for him.

Salaam’s Shattered Family

Salaam has three daughters and a son. His lone son is a school drop-out as he started helping his father financially. He was a security guard at a company till 2016 when one fateful day on the way to his relatives’ home, he was stopped by the protestors and brutally assaulted and injured. His back was fractured. The daughters of Salaam too had to drop out of their schools given the financial constraints.

“My son is now bedridden and I had to sell land for his treatment,” Salaam said. “As of now it almost cost me up to Rs 4 lakh for his treatment.”

Most of the time Salaam curses his destiny. “I cannot work somewhere else now. I have given my life, my energy to this garden and to this department. I cannot do anything more than this now,” he said.

Not Alone

But he is not alone. Of around 110 workers, there are 47 casual labourers other than Salaam in the Tulip garden who are similarly paid peanuts.

Khursheed Ahmad, 38, is another casual labour working in the tulip garden. All the day he roams around the garden and makes sure no visitor harms the tulips that he and his colleagues grew by working hard throughout the year.

“The care and affection the tulip needs for bloom are not any less than raising a child,” said Ahmad. He knows the art of tulip gardening so well that he easily differentiates the different shades of a single colour.

“The tulips you see here are not weeks or months-long work but a full-year job. If there is a delay, that means the work of the whole year would be wasted. We have to be on job in harsh winters and in hot summers to make it a success,” asserted Ahmad.

Artists performing during the Tulip Festival held in Tulip garden on the foothills of Zabarvan in Srinagar on Sunday, April 4, 2021. Pic: DIPR

Growing Tulips

Ahmad said that for just 20 days or a month of bloom of tulips you need to work for the rest of the 11 months. In  June and July, Ahmad and others dig out the seed of the tulips and then sort them and put the diseased and rotten ones aside.

“It is not the easy thing to do. Remember this garden has more than 15 lakh tulips. It means we have to sort 15 lakh seeds,” Ahmad said.

Then the seed and the tulip bulbs are kept safe so that they will be sown again in the coming season. In August, September and October, the whole garden is made flat. Tractors plough the land. Then the labourers add manure and compost to it. Then finally in November, the flowerbeds are made and 15 lakh seeds are sown again for the next season. “In January we clear the weed,” Ahmad said.

Tulip gardeners at work in Srinagar. They work round the year and the garden is open just for a month. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Ahmad too was appointed as a casual labourer in 2007 when the first-time tulip garden was thrown open. Ahmad’s family comprises six members including his aged parents and two children. He has admitted his children to a nearby private school. He has to pay Rs 3400 as the fee per month for their education.

“It is more than half of the salary that I have been getting for a decade now in this department. I just want to educate my children and not let them end up like me,” said Ahmad.

Also, like other casual labourers, Ahmad has to pay Rs 100 monthly towards their union. The union has been fighting for the regularisation of the services of casual labourers for years. “In 2007 I started with a monthly salary of Rs 2100, then in the year 2010 it was raised to Rs 3350,” said Ahmad.

Surviving on Hope

Salaam and Ahmad are hopeful that someday they will be regularised.  “I have given prime of my life to the department and now where shall I go after all these years. I am hoping someday they will take notice of what we are doing, how hard-working we are and will then regularise us,” said Salaam.

In 2017, around 35 casual labours were regularised by the department and that has made others hopeful. “I know the wait is harsh but I am hopeful that someday we too will be enjoying a dignified living,” Ahmad said.

Two causal labourers died while waiting for regularisation. Ajaz Ahmad Sofi, who worked as a casual labourer for 10 years died of cancer finally but was never regularised. He, like others, was donating money to different unions for his regularisation.

“He lived his last days in penury and got no help from the department,” revealed another of their colleagues while remembering the dead man fondly. “We casual labourers pooled some money in our own capacity and gave that to him so that he has a dignified death.”

Mohammad Ismail Gannie, a resident of Chattabal Srinagar, grew old while waiting for regularization and died in the 2020 pandemic. He had joined the floriculture department back in 2003.

Gulzar Ahmad Wani, another casual labourer, works tirelessly in the garden. A resident of Tral (Pulwama), Wani has been in the department since 2008.  Wani stays in shared rented accommodation in Srinagar just to make sure he does not miss a day at work.

“I pay Rs 1000 rent for accommodation,” Wani said, adding he did not want to talk about the other expenses he has to meet there. “Let it be, if we will think about it, it would certainly lead to depression.”

“People come here, enjoy, they see colours in these tulips, but honestly, I do not see them colourful anymore. I know which hands raise them. There is a darker side to these colourful tulips.”

Wani has an ailing mother and a 28-year-old unmarried daughter at home. Some years ago, Wani’s wife passed away because of her illness. “The only regret I will be having throughout my life is that I could not afford treatment for her illness.”

“If someday I am sick or have to go home for a day or two, I cannot make it to Rs 6750 then,” said Ahmad.

Mohammad Ashraf Dar, 36, is another casual labourer who works in the tulip garden since 2007. He is unmarried yet. He waits for the day when he will be regularised. “Who knows if that day comes even or not” Dar sighed while his colleagues laughed.

The Tulip Garden remains open for around one month as the life of tulips is not more than 15-17 days. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

This year the garden was thrown open to the public on March 25. An official said that around 50,000 people have already visited the garden generating a revenue of Rs 25 lakh for the government in just 5 days. The garden managers expect the footfalls to surge to an all-time high as a gala event was unveiled on April 3, with Bollywood artists roped in at an investment of around Rs 75 lakh. In fact, only one artist, Badshah, a rapper, will take Rs 30 lakh home.

The policymakers have deliberately avoided looking at the darker sides of the colours they are using to lure the tourists. They are making the Kashmir frame look good in the photo book while ensuring the dreadful proletariat life stays away from the frame. This is in utter disregard of the blood and sweat these skilful people infuse in the tulips on daily basis to make the garden colourful.

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