Worker Tales

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Come spring and tens of thousands of workers from north Indian states reach Kashmir for not less than a six-month stint. In a comparatively cool climate with better earnings, they are the main agency that brings in new systems and styles in construction skills. But there are thousands of others who have Kashmir as their second home, reports Faisal Ahmed Fazeel

Men at work.

Men at work.

By 9 am, Jahangir Chowk turns into a chaotic arena: passenger transporters shouting the names of their destinations, street hawkers attracting customers, the routine noise of vehicles at peak-time; and unending construction activity on the flyover, now in its sixth year of making.

The flyover is an elevated oasis. Despite being located in Srinagar’s most crowded place, it is set apart, partly because of the height where people work. It is just a small stretch connecting the crowded Jahangir Chowk to Rambagh, by adding 3.94 km of additional two-way drive space over the already existing road.

Over the elevated slabs of concrete and iron, hundreds of people were busy roofing, in steelworks and in shuttering. These were three distinct activities going on at a fast pace so that the company meets its final deadline of August. What is interesting, the workforce engaged in three activities echoed different tones; the first section of roof labourers conversed in Kashmiri, Bengalis overtook the steel and ironwork, as Hindi accent of UP echoed in the shuttering section.

The flyover platforms are invoking an interesting cultural diversity. Each section had at least 10 workers engaged in doing their part. By 5 pm, the same site gets deserted; labourers return to their dingy crowded room in Rambagh. Playing Pubg, streaming YouTube, video calling back home, Bollywood songs playing loud on phone are the evening chores they engage with.

Since Kashmiris are majorly involved in skill-driven handicrafts, the valley has been facing a dearth in working labour and menial jobs find no takers. The seasonal migrants fill this void. In recent decades, a wave of migrant labourers entered Kashmir’s workforce.

In absence of official data, it is assumed that around half a million migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Punjab, and West Bengal reach Kashmir every spring, fulfilling the Kashmir’s labour demands in different sectors. These semi-literate labours make construction sites, manage farmlands, lay roads and contribute in the surging fruit sector economy. Thousands of them are employed as domestic workers and hawkers on Kashmir streets are ubiquitous.

A morning stroll in Srinagar city leads to the migrant labour hubs who assembe at a specific spot in different localities where the people come and hire them – the masons, fitters, carpenters, polishers, painters, POP specialists, marble setters, bathroom specialists and the unskilled labourers. The thickness of these crowds is a layman’s indicator of how the real estate sector is performing in Kashmir. Adjacent to these spots invariably is another small group comprising local labourers, mostly unskilled. There are jobs that are specific to particular skill-set: no home roofing will ever be done by a non-local and now hardly a local carpenter will be permitted to make a wardrobe as it is the job of Punjabi specialists; exterior home wall cladding is done especially by the Rajasthan experts.

In addition to them, there is another section of workers who are into specific occupations: tailors, barbers, cobblers, ice-cream makers, fruit sellers. In Srinagar, almost two-thirds of hair-dressers is non-local. Till 2000, when the local Dar-ul-Ulooms mushroomed, almost eighty percent of the Imams in the city were from UP and Bihar.

At shuttering department of the newly constructing flyover, Shahrukh, a thin dark guy, is all set to revisit his homeland Deoband in UP for Eid after a year of hard work. Prior to coming to Kashmir, Sharukh was employed in Saudi Arabia where the work was same and wages were quite high. However, the immigration rules and issues with visa led Sharukh to Srinagar for livelihood.

For Shahrukh, Srinagar is not so different in respect of work environment and wages. Here, it is homely for Shahrukh as his cousins and many other workers are from his native place. He stays with 10 other workers in a small dingy room. The workers live in cramped quarters and cook food in a corner of the room and share a common toilet.

Not far from Shahrukh and his co-workers is a group of young men from Bengal. One of them is Sarfaraz, a resident of Malda. He knows Shahrukh but the interactions are less. “We mind our own work, and don’t involve in unnecessary things,” he sternly said.

Sarfaraz is an expert in his field and has worked in India’s all major metropolitan cities including Mumbai, Haryana and Delhi. Once he finishes his Srinagar assignment, he is supposed to be posted to Bengaluru.

Mumbai, he said, is very fast paced; you wake up early; by 9 am, work begins. There is humidity and intense heat. Srinagar, however, is cool. “Yahan Dhoop Dhoop Nahi Lagta hai,” he said. “Still, we get better wages.”

Workers, who were getting only Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day in other major cities in India, came in droves as they are offered Rs 500 to Rs 600 a day in Kashmir. Attracted by the higher wage, people started coming to Kashmir. Especially, for low-end work, which pays well and is a sustainable long-term proposition says the local contractor there.

The migrants are generally happy with the local people. In retrospect, the migrants are preferred here as one migrant mostly does the job of at least two local workers. In Kashmir, Kashmiri workers follow a sort of an official timetable. Usually, the migrant workers prefer to work for five to 10 years and go back to their home states, unlike people like Dawood.

Dawood is a Kalaigar, a tinner. He coats the copperware with tin. He speaks and understands Kashmiri. He chews gutka and lacks a native’s appearance. Coating the copper utensils with tin is a yearly exercise in most of urban Kashmir. Unlike the traditional gliders, Dawood moves from home to home and once he gets work, he puts up his workshop, then and there.

Dawood left his home when he was a teenager and entered Srinagar for labour. Here, he learned Kalaigari, which was not an alien skill for Dawood as Kalai is practised in parts of UP as well. Though Dawood hails from Saharanpur (UP), he is known to locals.

“It has been 20 years now, I haven’t visited Saharanpur; Kashmir has been a love for me, and I desire to die here,” Dawood said. He, however, sends part of his earnings home on every first day of every month. Dawood has an assistant, Chaand, 19. Chaand addresses Dawood as Ustad. Like Dawood, Chaand has learnt to speak Kashmiri but he is not a perfect speaker yet. Chaand’s dad is also a Kalaigar and runs his shop near HabbaKadal.

A tinner

A tinner

Dawood is in Kashmir for 20 years and has worked in every corner of Kashmir. His disciple Chaand is also following him. His father had admitted him to a school but Chaand dropped out at primary level and decided to supplement the earnings of his family. For him, kalai has been a lineage skill; his grandfather had tinned the utensil of Kashmiris; his dad learnt the skill when he was of Chaand’s age; Chaand continued it by learning from his father, and is now accompanying Dawood.

In Kashmir, uncertainty rules. Every now and then, there are curfews, shutdowns, cordons, search operations and gun battles. “Kashmir is such an uncertain place that you never know what would happen the very next moment, curfew and hartals impact our work dearly, but still I have to pay the daily wage of the workers I hire,” Mohammad Nayeem, a work contractor said.

If the tensions persist for a long time, as was the case in 2010 and 2016 unrests, the migrant workforce flees. But there are veterans like Dawood who stay put. Kashmir is known for the harsh winters. Even a section of the population, mostly the working and the business class, migrates to the plains for a few months. Some die-hards like Dawood, hardly move out. They have adapted themselves to such an extent that barring their appearance, they are as good as a Kashmiri is.

(A student of Manipal University in Karnataka, Faisal Ahmed Fazeel is an intern with Kashmir Life.)

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