Uttarakhand’s Uri Tragedy

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Eight labourers were killed when a landslide buried a group of workers implementing an extension of prestigious Char Dham project in Uttarakhand. Faheem Mir took two days trekking to meet the grieving families and report the crisis behind the seasonal migration of the workforce

Mother and sister of Gulzar Ahmad. KL Image by Faheem Mir

On December 21, Uri’s Balkote and Morthal villages, more than 115 km north of Srinagar, were exhibiting the routine border normality. Fighting the intense cold despite a brighter sun, the people were busy in the routine activities. By around noon, Khuma Begum, 60, was waiting for a phone call from her son working as a labourer in Uttarakhand.

As she was waiting for the call, somebody from the neighbourhood came with the devastating news of his death. Gulzar Ahmad Sheikh had gone to work as a labourer on December 10.

Gulzar was not alone. Around 23 residents from this belt were working on a retaining wall on a project linked with the Char Dham highway that collapsed burying 12 of them. They were working to pave way for a road in Bansbada area of Uttarakhand. As the news starting unfolding in detail, the entire belt went into instant mourning. The labourers belonged to a cluster including Balkote, Morthal, Namla and Bagna Salamabad Noorkhah. It eventually ended with the killing of eight of them.

The contractor company drove the caskets to Jammu from where they were airlifted to Uri. The bodies reached Uri on December 23 and the entire belt went in painful mourning, once again.

It was not the first time that labourers from Uri left their homes to earn their livelihood during the cold winters by migrating out of Kashmir. For many, it is a perennial exercise when the labour force migrates to different states in the Indian plains.

These villages inhabiting the Line of Control (LoC) are godforsaken hamlet where little work is available. During winters, reaching Balkote takes its own time. It is located on the banks of Hajipeer Nalla. It is off the main road. Once the road ends near the Morthal Hill lock, one has to trek a bit of distance to reach the mourning families. The height of the Morthal Hill lock is a spot where visitors get a clear view of the structures on the other side of the LoC.

Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh | Bilal Ahmad Sheikh | Gulzar Ahmad Sheikh | Imtiyaz Ahmad Bhat

The zigzag foot trek leading towards families of two of the deceased is just not a cakewalk. One has to literally stick to the mountain to avoid the deep gorge.

The mourning family seemingly is fighting abject poverty for a long time. The entire belonging of Gulzar Sheikh’s family is a cowshed, a kitchen and a ramshackle room. It was Sheikh, 20, who was running the family. With his death under the landslide, his widowed mother Khuma Begum and unmarried sister Jameela Bano, 27, will have to fend for themselves.

A group of people were seen roaming around the shed. After a few minutes, a lady struggled to enter the room. Apparently, with weak eyesight, she was being helped for every step. Looking much older than her age, she was Khuma Begum, Gulzar’s mother.

The room where she was receiving condolences was painted with mud. Its window was converted into a cupboard. On the floor, in the corner were a few items like an empty gas cylinder, a headless lighting gas, a bag of rice and few empty jars.

The handicapped father with a family of Bilal Ahmad. KL Image by Faheem Mir

Visibly, the only item that was half filled was the sack of rice. She said the bag was brought by Gulzar on his shoulders before he left to earn for his family and to make some saving to see his sister married and settled.

The family said it was Gulzar’s first visit to work outside Kashmir. He has asked his mother to bring merchandise from the local shopkeeper. “Once back, he was supposed to make the payment to the shopkeeper,” a devastated Khuma said. “Now who will pay him and how will we live.”

It is the extreme poverty in the entire belt that is forcing the people of this border area to migrate to earn a livelihood. Though officially, the entire belt is into agriculture, there is not much of the land that would feed these populations living between two guns and limited natural resource. Gulzar had left his education in ninth class when poverty took his father’s life.

Gulzar arranged the marriage of one of his sisters this year in September. “He was very young when his father left us but he worked hard to earn two-time meals for us and to marry his sisters”, a grieving Khuma said.

After leaving home on December 10, he called his neighbours number on December 13 and talked to his mother. The family of two cannot afford a cell phone. “He said that they reach Uttarakhand where they will work for three months”, she said. That was the first and the last time when he talked to his mother after he left for Uttrakhand.

Gulzar’s family is not the only home that is suffering and will suffer more in coming days. Barely, a few meters away is another family that also lost their son, Bilal Ahmad Sheikh, at the age of 17. He was a professional labourer for many days.

Bilal’s father Fareed Ahmad, 45, is handicapped. Years ago, one of his bone in right arm got damaged in a road accident that marked the end to his work, as a labourer. He cannot work with his right arm and it is difficult for him to get a job as a daily wager. Tragically, the day Fareed met an accident was Bilal’s last school day. “The burden on the young shoulders increased,” one of his relatives said. “He left the school in seventh class to support the family and became a labourer.”

Bilal’s family comprising his parents and three of his younger siblings live in three roomed tin shed which was built by Fareed after the October 2005 earthquake destroyed the belt. “It was not possible for me to build a house; we hardly earn two times meals,” Fareed said.

One of the rooms in the tin-shed was decorated from inside with different kinds of beautiful paintings. “He used to sleep in this room,” Bilal’s mother Ruksana Begum said. “Bilal was the lone source of income for us,” added Fareed.

All the eight persons live in remote Uri, far away from the Jhelum Valley Road, the highway that connects Kashmir with Muzaffarabad. Given the location of these hamlets, it is a terrifying experience to reach, negotiating the heavily militarised belt where, sometimes, rival armies fire in the air to establish their presence.

The other belt is located at the dead end of the Namla-Rustam route which is 20 km away from the Jhelum Valley Road. Four families are mourning in this belt after the Uttarakhand tragedy.

It was Rasm-e-Chahrum of the dead, and a pall of gloom has descended upon this belt. The house of Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh, 30, in Morthal was full of mourners. Tears were rolling down from the flowing white beard of his father Ghulam Hassan Sheikh. On the other side, his mother was unconscious and numb, not able to talk.

A neighbour forced her to have some breakfast but Azmat Jaan didn’t respond. The silence in the room was broken by a few giggles of Zahoor’s year old son who was in the lap of his just-widowed mother Rukaya Begum. Isma Zahoor is the eldest child Zahoor left behind.

Isma had talked to her father over the phone that morning and he had promised her he will call later in the evening as he was on work. But the destiny did not allow him to complete his promise.

Mukhtar Ahmad, his eldest brother who is living separately, said that nobody wants to leave home without solid reasons. “Majboori aur Mazdoori” the helplessness and the poverty are the words that he used to describe their financial condition. Zahoor was working as a labourer after he failed to pass his matriculation in three successive attempts.

Imtiyaz Ahmad Bhat, 25, was another victim of the Char Dham landslide. He left behind his wife Gulshan and two children Mahnaz, 5, and Sahil, 2.

The family is living in a room on the first floor of the mud and stone house. Its ground level is for two goats, the entire livestock possession the family owns.

Family members of Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh. KL Image by Faheem Mir

Imtiyaz lost his father years ago due to non-availability of proper medical treatment. He fought odds and finally was moneyed enough to marry a local girl. His mother Shameema Begum is now worried about the future of her grandchildren. “He left home for them, for their bright future, who will see off them now?” she asked.

The eldest among the deceased was Rashid Ahmad Sheikh, 45, of Morthal hamlet. The condition of the family is not different from other victims.

The deceased was the father of six children including a six-month-old son. HIs just-widowed wife tried to talk to this reporter but couldn’t. Her eyes had dried completely and her voice was choked.

The youngest of the victims was Mushtaq Ahmad, 15, a resident of Namla. Just to support his ailing parents he left home, literally forever.

Almost 30 km away from Morthal, the families of two other victims of the tragedy live in Bagan Noorkhah. This hamlet lost two teenagers: Majid Khan, 18, son of Mohammad Ramzan Khan and Syed Shafeeq Kazmi, 19, son of Mohammad Ameer Shah.

These boys were the sole sources of income for their families. Getting education is not easy in such circumstances, where people own just one or two rooms and are living on the edges of the hills, where there are always possibilities of shelling. By an average, the monthly income of a family is between Rs 1000 to 2000.

Mother and wife of Imtiyaz Ahmad Bhat. KL Image by Faheem Mir

“There are no other ways to stay alive except to work as daily wagers or to join Army as potters,” Mohammad Shafi Bhat said. “For a job, people have to pay money but where is the money.”

It is the lack of opportunities even for the labour force that they choose to go to faraway places to work. Tragically, the families said they were being paid Rs 300, a day. Srinagar has Rs 500 as the daily wages for an unskilled labourer that reaches Rs 700 during the peak construction activity. For pruning and other semi-skilled jobs, the Kashmir periphery offers as huge as Rs 800, per day.

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