LEANING AGAINST his truck parked on the main road in Shopian, Khalid dials the apple trader whose stock he is scheduled to transport to UP. After trying twice, Khalid heads to a repair shop to have the truck looked at. Unlike previous years, he does not venture into the villages of South Kashmir to have his truck loaded directly outside the orchards but waits for the trader to bring the boxes to him.
After a truck driver from Rajasthan was shot dead by militants in Shopian on October 14, followed by four killings — a migrant labourer in Pulwama and an apple trader in Shopian on October 16, and two non-local truckers in Shopian Thursday — the area has been tense and the people, anxious.
The attacks on non-local civilians are unprecedented, and the residents, whose businesses and livelihoods depend on the work force from outside Jammu and Kashmir, have cause for alarm.
Since the revocation of the state’s special status on August 5, J&K has been facing a labour shortage. However, some of the workers who travel to Kashmir for work — brick kiln workers and helpers in paddy fields and orchards — have stayed back due to the seasonal nature of work, better rates and a sense of security in numbers, despite the perceived and now real risks.
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Gopal Kumar Karsh, a 25-year-old from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, is a brick-kiln worker in Pulwama, following in the footsteps of his father who has been working in the same kilns since before he was born. “My father worked at the bhattis (kilns) here and because of the better rates, he brought all of our family here to work. Even my ten-month-old son was born here,” he said.
Gopal, along with over 140 brick kiln workers at the Star Brick Kiln, mainly from Bihar, Jharkhand and UP, travel to Kashmir around June in search of work. “Two workers can bake about 2,000 bricks a day and we make between Rs 500 to Rs 700 daily. We do not get this kind of rate in other places,” he said.
For the locals, it is a matter of finding labour that is cheaper and efficient than is locally available. Ajaz Ahmad, a land owner in Pulwama, said, “In harvest season, if we employ local labour it costs us about Rs 1,500 per day. We prefer to employ migrant labourers since they start early and charge us only about Rs 700. And there is no hassle, they complete work on time because they want to earn as much as they can in the limited time available.”
At another kiln, workers from Rae Bareli are loading a truck, wrapping up work as soon as possible. “Winter is beginning to set in and in this season, the brick does not dry properly. We came here in June and worked here throughout the summer. If we earn Rs 600 to Rs 700 per day here, we will be able to send at least Rs 200 a day back home,” said Awdhesh Kumar, one of the workers.
Kumar said when they go back to the plains, they make as little as Rs 150 a day working in the fields. “That is why, even with the risks involved, we come here for work, we have never had any issues working with the locals,” he said.
According to district authorities, there are approximately 12,000 migrant labourers in Pulwama during peak season, of which only 1,100 were available this year after August 5. In Shopian, of the around 5,000 people who are usually available for work in the apple orchards for plucking and loading, only about 3,500 were available this year.
Even in terms of truckers coming to ferry the fruit outside the Valley, activity has been restricted to six collection points identified by the police. At one point in Shopian, Mohammad Islamail from Amroha in UP awaits the smaller pick-up trucks bringing in fruit from one of the 180 villages in the district that are engaged in the apple trade. “I have been travelling to Kashmir, carrying apples for 17 years. There has never been a problem with this business. Although now, with the deaths of truckers, our families do worry. But at least we can call them now,” he said, referring to the partial lifting of the communications clampdown.
Drivers also say that they are travelling in groups so that no one gets singled out. “Earlier, even a single truck would come and go but now, we try to move in groups so that no one is caught alone,” said Jasmeet Singh, a driver. For movement within the district, traders in their private vehicles are escorting trucks to the collection points.
A businessman from Aligarh, Siraj Ahmad, says at the fruit mandi in Shopian that incidents such as the recent killings is forcing people to be more careful. “As a businessman, I have no choice but to come here. The fruit has great demand in the plains. And I am one of the hundreds who come here from other states and live with the families of those we do business with. What has changed since this killing is that we do not step out after 6 pm and we try and stay together,” he said.
The majority of the apple trade in both these South Kashmir districts is done through established socio-economic channels and with trade relationships dating decades. “This is why it is essential that we save not only lives but our livelihoods that depend on these people and these decade-old relationships that benefit everyone,” said Javed Ahmad, while plucking apples at his orchard in Shopian.