On the outskirts of downtown Srinagar, in Zaldagar, Waseem Ahmad Balla’s family of five lives in one room and a kitchen. Sitting at the doorway of his house, cleaning a bowl of red-chili powder, he wonders, “If the shutdown continues, how long will we sustain?”
Since the abrogation of the Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which gave semi-autonomy to the then state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), now divided into two federal territories, there is a clampdown on the communication services, as well as, in the initial weeks, restrictions on public movement.
Though, when the government removed the restrictions, the shutdown continued in the face of civil disobedience. It affected the daily life in Kashmir, paralyzing the economy of the Valley on every level of the economic strata.
Mr. Balla, a 30-year-old livestock vendor, is sitting at home since the clampdown. His family, who depend on his daily earning and a small amount of savings, is now struggling to navigate its daily life.
“Before the abrogation, I was making enough money to sustain my small family,” he said. “After a month, I ran out of savings.” Soon, the house ran out of rice and pulses.
Mr. Balla’s wife, Chaspeera Waseem Balla, standing despondently at the mouth of her house’s corridor, looked at one of her daughters, Qubra, and cursed herself for not being able to fulfill her demands.
Children and education
The Ballas have three children at home – two daughters, Rounak (14) and Qubra (10), and a son, Sahil (16). They haven’t been to school since 5 August. Ms. Rounak, who had to appear in her board exams for the eighth standard, which she believes is a crucial stage of her life, has no clue what lies ahead for her.
“Are the exams happening? Should she sit for them?” asked her worried mother, Ms. Balla. While Ms. Rounak has no idea about either her date-sheet or syllabus, the family fears for the future of the children.
The frequent shutdowns in the Valley have affected the rhythm of the educational institution. For education, Ms. Rounak and Mr. Sahil were relying on private tuitions. However, lacking sufficient money, the Ballas weren’t able to pay the fees, and the duo had to drop out of the classes.
Mr. Sahil, who sits outside his house, around a wooden carom-board with his two friends, shrugs off at questions. “How are you liking these days – away from school?” he shrugged off again, rubbing powder on his hands, he chose to focus on his white striker.
Attempts of Survival
Upon finding the streets less restricted on 8 September, Mr. Balla walked out of his house to find some work. He worked as a labourer on daily-wage and earned 1,500 rupees in a couple of days. With it, Mr. Balla bought a few kilograms of rice and pulses.
To help her husband, “keeping the dignity aside”, Ms. Balla opted to clean utensils in the house of one of her son’s close friends. With a downtrodden look on her face, Ms. Balla said, “I earned 3,000 rupees from it, and bought day-to-day things.”
Ms. Balla, who recently had two heart surgeries, has grown weaker in the past few days. After doctors operated her, they had asked her to maintain her medicine cycle properly – which costs about 1,600 rupees a month.
“I haven’t taken medicines for a month,” she said. “I ran out of them and now I don’t have money to buy more.” For her, as of now, the meals for her family are more important than her health.
Not giving much thought to the government’s move of abrogating the special status of J-K, and bifurcating the state, she worries about the survival of her family. “If the shutdown continues like this, we will die of hunger,” she said.
During regular days, before the clampdown, Ms. Balla would clean a handful of corporate offices nearby. However, while the offices are covered under a sheet of dust, Ms. Balla longs for her pending payments. In absence of communication, she cannot ask for her payments, nor can she contact her relatives living in far-flung areas of the Valley.
She stays home all day, with a heavy heart, as her son, Mr. Sahil, plays outside the house. Whenever it gets late, or her anxiety takes a toll over her mind, she ventures out of her house to look for him. “We live in downtown, and the situation is unpredictable here,” she said. “Though it is peaceful as of now, we don’t know when it might turn.”
One of her uncles, who live in Srinagar, passed away a few days ago. She came to know on the fourth day. However, she preferred not to go – fearing what people might think if she would go empty-handed.
Ms. Rounak fears for her future too. “I don’t think we can sit for exams if the situation continues like this,” she said. “There is no future in Kashmir. Watching my father’s economic condition, I feel like I won’t continue my studies.”
However, Qubra was clinging on a wooden railing, with the stairs on the verge of wreckage. Laughing shyly, she expressed her aim to either become a doctor or a teacher.
“When I grow up,” she said, and circled once again around the wooden pillar. “I will teach students during hartaals – for free.”
This story originally appeared in the 16 – 22 September 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.