September 25, 2017 2:27:46 am
On Sunday morning, Bilal Ahmad Dar had left for the market when his cellphone started ringing. After he took the call, Dar rushed home at Laharwalpora in Bandipore and turned on the radio to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating him for his efforts.
“I had gone to buy some things for home when I got a call, a call from Srinagar and also from Major sahib (an Army officer posted at Bandipore),” Dar told The Indian Express. “They asked me to switch on the radio and said Modiji is talking about me. I jumped into an auto-rickshaw and rushed home. I heard only a little part of his (Modi’s) speech.”
The 18-year-old ragpicker from Bandipore shot to fame when a documentary — Saving the Saviour — by a Srinagar-based filmmaker Jalal Jeelani won the Palamdale Vision Award 2017 at the Water Take 1 Film Festival at Ventura in California. A few months later, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation appointed him its ambassador.
For over five years, Dar has been earning a modest living by cleaning the Wular lake —the largest water body in Kashmir that has been choked by polythene and plastic bottles. While Dar removes polythene and plastic bottles from the water body, it also earns him a living.
Dar’s story dates back to 2011, when forced by poverty following death of his father, he moved to Srinagar for a menial job in a hotel at Shalimar. One day while working at the hotel he was confronted by police. “They told me it is a crime for children to work,” he said. “I told them that I am from a poor family and I have to earn for my mother and two sisters. But they didn’t listen. They said it is a crime and they can’t allow it.”
Dar returned to his village. And one day while he was swimming with his village friends in the Wular lake, the idea struck him. “As we were swimming in the lake we had to wade through hundreds of plastic bottles,” he says. “It suddenly struck me that I can collect these bottles. It will not only clean the lake but also help me to earn a living.” From that day, Dar left his village at six in the morning every day and returned home after spending more than 12 hours in the lake searching for plastic bottles and polythene bags.
“Every day, I would collect 100 to 200 plastic bottles and hundreds of polythene bags,” he said. “It would fetch me something between Rs 150 to 200.” For six years now, Dar not just earned a living for his family — mother and two sisters — but also managed to marry off his older sister. In these six years, he has also cleaned the Wular lake of thousands of kilograms of plastic trash.
That the Prime Minister would praise him for his efforts, he had never dreamt of. “It never crossed my thoughts,” he said. “I got lots of congratulatory messages. I am really happy today.”
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