'Hunger will kill us before coronavirus does’: Migrant labourers in Kashmir say incomes have dried up and relief shelters are inadequate

In all, about 58,000 labourers from other states are stranded in Jammu and Kashmir, according to a survey by the Union Territory's labour department.

Mudassir Kuloo April 08, 2020 20:42:09 IST
'Hunger will kill us before coronavirus does’: Migrant labourers in Kashmir say incomes have dried up and relief shelters are inadequate

Shahid Ahmad, 25, is a mason who arrived in Kashmir from Bihar's Supaul in the first week of March. He had managed to work for just five days in Baramulla and earned Rs 2,500, when the Centre announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus .

For the next two weeks, Shahid was stuck at a rented accommodation along with his co-workers in the Sopore area of Baramulla district.

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Many migrant labourers have been housed in shabby buildings amid the coronavirus lockdown. Image procured by Mudassir Kuloo

Four days ago, about 300 migrant labourers, including Shahid, were picked up by the administration from rented accommodations and lodged at Sopore Degree College.

A distraught Shahid said, “The administration has not made good arrangements for us. Over 20 labourers have been put up in one shabby and unhygienic room. We have no way to maintain a distance between each other."

He said that his family in Supaul has run out of stocks of essential commodities and is running out of money as well.

Shahid further said, “I don't have a single penny in my pocket. We don’t have money even to buy medicines. My father and mother are worried about me. Rather than coronavirus , we might die of hunger."

He said the district administration provided him 5 kilograms of rice and a packet of milk. However, he remarked, "What will we do with rice, when there is no oil, vegetables or spices?"

Shahid has been working in Kashmir for the past three years. Last year, he had to leave suddenly in August, just before the abrogation of Article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

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Labourers at a water tank in Baramulla. Image procured by Mudassir Kuloo

He said, "This year, migrant workers had begun to arrive in Kashmir in March, as it was the beginning of the working season. The government should have given labourers three days to reach their homes before announcing the lockdown."

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Another migrant labourer from Supaul is Mohammad Hanif, who arrived Kashmir on 3 March. Hanif, a mason, says that almost all the money that he earned after working for a week has ended.

“I have Rs 60 left in my pocket. Nobody is concerned about us. Over 30 labourers are put in one room, and so, we fear that might catch the infection."

Hanif has been working in Kashmir for the past 11 years. “Our families are concerned about us. They want us to come home immediately, but we are stuck here,” he said.

Satish Kumar, a barber who hails from Uttar Pradesh, also faces a similar predicament. He is presently lodged in a government building in Anantnag in south Kashmir.

Kumar, who has been working in Kashmir for the last eight years, said, "Our families are worried about our safety. I have seen the lockdowns of 2010 and 2016, but this time, it is scary. We are even not able to make a video call to our families due to the low internet speed. We want to leave for our homes as soon as possible. We want to survive to see the faces of our family members."

He said some locals helped them and provided food. “But everyone is running for safety. If anyone gets infected, he or she can disseminate the infection to others. Labourers like myself are prone to infections as we can't always sanitise ourselves adequately. How can we avoid spreading the virus when we are not able to maintain any distance?,” he asked.

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More than 20 labourers were housed in one room at Degree College Sopore. Image procured by Mudassir Kuloo

Most barbers in Kashmir are non-locals, as societal pressure has forced many locals to give up this trade.

Mahesh Kumar, a resident of Jharkhand, is stuck along with 20 more labourers in Srinagar's Soura area.

“We are penniless. Locals are taking care of our food. But how long will we be dependent on them? Amid this crisis, everyone wants to be with their families,” he said.

In all, about 58,000 labourers from other states are stranded in Jammu and Kashmir, according to a survey by the Union Territory's labour department. Out of these, about 20,000 are in Kashmir. Most of them are running out of money and food, and are desperate to return to their native places.

According to an official in the labour department, almost four lakh labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and West Bengal come to Kashmir every year to make a living. They work at construction sites, restaurants, hair cutting saloons, farms, roadside shops, etc.

More than 400 migrant labourers have been lodged in a government building at Lassipora in south Kashmir's Pulwama.

Locals, along with NGOs, have been arranging meals in several areas for migrant labourers. One of them, Omar Ahmad, said, "When all work has stopped and migrant labourers have not earned a single penny, it is our responsibility to take care of them."

Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Pandurang K Pole said that the administration has set up a helpline where migrant labourers can call for any help.

He added, “District development commissioners have been told to ensure that all people, including migrant labourers, face minimum inconvenience during this crisis. We will look into why so many labourers are lodged in one room, and will also ensure that they are provided proper food and shelter."

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