A 15-year-old ragpicker, Bilal Ahmad Dar, who has been earning his livelihood by cleaning Asia’s second biggest fresh water lake Wular, is Srinagar Municipal Corporation’s (SMC) new brand ambassador. Bilal, who lives in village Lahawarpora on the banks of Wular lake, had been studying in class VI when he lost his father Mohammad Ramzan leaving the responsibility of the family on him.
“It is a very happy moment for me and my family because many times we had nothing to eat for dinner,” Bilal said while talking about his appointment as SMC’s brand ambassador. He rose to fame after a local filmmaker, Jalal Baba, made a movie about him and his struggle for the environment.
“At first, our mother took care of our expenses. She raised my two sisters and me. But the meagre savings my father left us, lasted only a couple of years,” says Bilal, adding that in the seventh standard he asked his mother for money to pay his school fee. “My mother had no money and she started crying. That was the time when I decided to quit studies and do some menial jobs,” he told.
The teenager did various odd jobs, including one at an automobile repair shop and another as a helper in a local hotel. “One day tourists in the hotel conveyed the owner that he will be charged with child labour act if he doesn’t dismiss me. That was another blow,” he recalled.
Bilal started cleaning the Wular after a chance visit to the lake with his friends where he noticed polyethene and other waste products in the water. “I then began collecting plastic from Wular and selling it. I used to earn Rs 200-250 rupees per day,” he said while adding that the job helped him in arranging for the wedding of one of his sisters.
“It always pains me to see Wular in shambles. It is a livelihood for many. Our family drinks water from this lake. If we lose this lake we will have nothing to gift to our future generations if pollution goes on at the same rate. They will curse us,” says the young teenager.
SMC Commissioner Shafqat Khan said Bilal’s story would inspire others to conserve the environment. “People will see a role model in this boy. For us (SMC) he will be voice box. His story is a message how at times garbage can also be a source of income. We have ordered a specific uniform for him. He will be on task meeting people and enlightening them about pollution and garbage dumping,” he told The Indian Express.