Fear looms over economy driven by migrants, traders in Kashmir

Updated on Nov 03, 2019 07:07 AM IST

Thousands of workers fled when the government brought Kashmir under a lockdown in the early hours of August 5, fearing possible violence. But just as big a number didn’t leave – forced by economic hardships back home.

Migrant workers huddle around a fire in Anantnag.(HT Photo)
Migrant workers huddle around a fire in Anantnag.(HT Photo)
Hindustan Times, Anantnag/Bijbehara/Kanihama/Srinagar | ByMir Ehsan, Dhrubo Jyoti and Smriti Kak Ramachandran

When Mohammad Sanowar Ali found his name on the final list of the National Register of Citizens in Assam in August, he thought his troubles were finally over. For months, the Goalpara resident had painstakingly pieced together family documentation. Now that his citizenship was secure, he felt it was time to turn his attention to income.

Late in September, Ali left the humid floodplains of his home to travel 2,500 kilometres to the green vales of Kashmir. His destination: Wanpoh village in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district that works as a node for both migrant labourers and employers.

Ali hoped to earn up to ~800 a day – there were always plenty of jobs after a bountiful harvest — and he even learnt Kashmiri. “It helped me in my job and helped me blend in villages,” he said.

Though he had heard of a lockdown after the effective abrogation of Article 370 in August, there had been no big attacks or violence. Ali settled into a routine quickly; living with young men from his district in a barebones house, going out at the crack of dawn and working till sunset.

But the routine was rudely disrupted on October 29, when five labourers from Bengal were gunned down by terrorists in Kulgam district. “Since that day, we haven’t gone to work. But I have earned almost ~50,000 here and there are no jobs back home. How can I leave?” asked Ali.

Around him, huddled in front of a fire on a misty winter morning, were workers from Assam, Bengal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who agreed. Mohammad Haidar Ali, for example, heard his state offered to pay for workers to return but had no intention of returning home to Jaynagar in Bengal. “If I was a rich man, maybe I could have gone back. But what will I eat if I go back?” he asked.

Thousands of such workers fled when the government brought Kashmir under a lockdown in the early hours of August 5, fearing possible violence. But just as big a number didn’t leave – forced by economic hardships back home. As autumn rolled into winter, many of those who left returned to the Valley, explained a government official.

But now, many wonder whether they made a mistake. In the village of Sufigund, Mohammad Ain-ud-din from Assam, who lives with his wife and children in a one-bedroom tin-roof house, said his family had been pleading to return home for a week. “Though the locals and the police have assured help, I am still not venturing deep into villages anymore,” he added.

State police has started to go village to village to take down the names of migrant workers, but an official admitted that providing security remains a challenge because the migrants have to travel deep into the interiors for their work and are scattered.

Many Kashmiris say they regret that in the current turmoil, they cannot guarantee the safety of people they consider part of the local fabric.

“Ours is a peaceful area but still we can’t give guarantee to anyone, especially non-locals, that they won’t be harmed here in future. I can’t even predict about myself because this is Kashmir,’’ said Ali Mohammad, a grocery store owner in Sufigund.

Impact on apple trade

Six terrorist strikes aimed at migrant workers, truckers and orchard employees have claimed 11 lives since the second week of October, and struck fear into the hearts of a community that forms a crucial cog in the Kashmiri economy, ranging from apples to carpets. All these industries depend on a steady flow of labour from outside states, especially in the peak months between September and November.

This fear is ravaging an economy already reeling from a three-month long shutdown.

The effect is most pronounced in the ~10,000 crore apple trade and seen at one of south Kashmir’s biggest fruit markets in Batengoo, four kilometres away from Anantnag town.

Despite a bumper harvest, only a truck or two are at the loading docks, and thousands of boxes of apples are lying around. Truck drivers – both local Kashmiris and non-locals — are refusing to go to villages to pick up the fruit, and growers are forced to hire vehicles to bring them to the big mandis, eating into their profits.

“The growers offer us an additional ~10 per box to lift the apples from villages in South Kashmir but after the attacks on truck drivers, there is panic,’’ said Showkat Ahmad, a truck driver.

A small distance away on National Highway 1, there is a steady hum of trucks driving towards Jammu. But none of them is laden with fruit. “This is first time when many non-local drivers left the Valley without loading apples, that too in the peak season, for fear of their lives,’’ Ahmad explained.

The mandi is one of the designated spots where growers have been asked to get their produce for the Marketing Intervention Scheme (MIS), launched by the J&K government and the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) in September.

Around 250 Central Reserve Police Force personnel secure the premises, said a commander, in addition to fortified vehicles. “We now practically live here because the threat of terrorism is ever present,” he explained.

The apple industry was initially hit because of blocked phones, internet and restrictions on movement that made it difficult to move produce. On September 12, the government stepped in and said it would buy apples directly from the farmers in a bid to eliminate middlemen and assured local growers that they would receive a just price.

But the scheme may have been undercut by local resentment that made many growers initially unwilling to sell to the government, and exacerbated by terror threats, especially after the attack on Sopore fruit grower Ramzan Dar in September.

The crisis has depressed bottom lines and devastated supply chains in a largely unorganised industry where growers depend on relationships with commission agents across decades.

In Batengoo, official data shows that in the last 45 days, roughly 200,000 boxes of apples have been dispatched. In comparison, the four south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag and Kulgam produce at least 20 million boxes of apples annually. “More than 60-70% apples are still lying in the villages,’’ said Abdul Rashid Naikoo, an apple grower.

To keep businesses running, trucks now park at designated points on the more secure highway and growers drive up from villages to load them. “I have been advised by my company not to go inside any village,’’ said Mohammad Rizwan, a truck driver from Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu.

Growers say the new arrangement is expensive. “We spend extra ~20 per box to ferry the apples but have no option,’’ said Abdul Hamid of Imam Sahib.

Shuttered stores, unsold goods

The most visible facet of the hurting local economy have been the shuttered shopfronts across Srinagar. Local residents say this is the result of a so-called civil curfew against the government’s nullification of Article 370 but a senior government official, on condition of anonymity, said the traders fear retribution from terror groups that have attacked local residents who refused to comply with diktats to protest.

“There is a security apparatus in place, but after the killing of Ghulam Mohammed Mir, a shopkeeper in Parimpora, fear set in,” he said.

Aashiq Sheikh, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries said the estimated loss of business since August 5 was to the tune of ~10,000 crore in Kashmir region alone. “Our estimates suggest that nearly 50,000 have been rendered jobless,” he added.

The government disagrees with these figures, pointing to the gradual relaxation of restrictions, movement of trucks and other goods. It says works are in the pipeline to ensure 100% of social welfare schemes are achieved and infrastructure projects are fast-tracked.

The worst hit are industries that were already reeling from government neglect and cheap competitors, such as the Kani shawl industry centred in five villages in Budgam district.

“The shutdown has ensured no one is coming from outside to take our shawls, and the blocked internet means we cannot take orders,” said Sabia Wani, who employed around 120 weavers.

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