Tea is an easy appetite killer. Julfekar Ali now brews it black. Milk is precious. And so is food. Between him and three roommates, their sack of rice is running on empty.

Since Kashmir was locked down in March to curb the spread of COVID-19, Mr. Ali and his roommates are spending their days in a small rented room near Hawal Chowk, Srinagar. A gas stove occupies one corner of the floor, the rest of it carpeted with a thin sheet of pink styrofoam, on which they sleep at night. There are no windows. A tungsten bulb dangling from a wire is their main source of light. 

Their landlord, who also owns a grocery store, has been selling rice, pulses, and milk to them on credit. “But now he has stopped giving us ration,” says Mr. Ali. “Including the room rent, we must owe him around 13,000 rupees.” As the men have no way to earn money in the lockdown, there is no way to clear their debt.

Opportunities are few back home in his village in Motihari district, Bihar. In search of work, Mr. Ali arrived in Srinagar in early March. It is a journey he has made almost every year since 1994, when he was eleven. He stays in the Valley from spring to autumn, and returns home at the start of winter around October. 

Like his roommates, Mr. Ali mainly worked as construction labour, lifting bricks and painting walls until he lost his right leg in 2011 when he fell on the tracks at Jammu railway station and a train ran over him.

But he has continued returning to Kashmir, even though curfews and shutdowns often disrupt his work. Now, he earns a living selling paan at Hawal Chowk, near his residence; his customers mostly comprise migrants labourers.

COVID lockdown, kashmir covid lockdown, migrant labourers kashmir
Julfekar Ali in his rented room in Hawal Chowk, Srinagar. Photograph by Kuwar Singh for The Kashmir Walla

“I like the weather [of Kashmir], and the people are more helpful here,” says Mr. Ali. “I earn a lot during Ramzan and Eid, when people are generous.”

However, Kashmir — and the rest of the world — is silent this Ramzan. The shops are shuttered; mosques are closed; and people have been ordered to stay home. 

The nationwide lockdown, now entering its sixth week, will be in place at least till 3 May.

Sarkari hunger

On 29 March, the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) government launched a helpline for stranded migrant labourers in the region. 

In the last few weeks, Mr. Ali has called in several times, including on 15 April and 18 April in the presence of The Kashmir Walla. “What’s your name? What’s your father’s name? Which state are you from?” asked Showkat Shafi, a labour department inspector who mans the helpline, both times, and followed it with an unmet assurance: “You will get the ration tomorrow.” 

Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Mr. Shafi also said that the labour department is “only coordinating with the tehsildars from the revenue department, who are providing ration.”

When he called Moeen Azhar Kakroo, the tehsildar from his area, Mr. Ali says he was told that only those migrant workers will get ration whose name appears on a list made by the patwaris, land record officers of the revenue department, in early April.

“When the list was being made, many migrants thought we were finding them to throw them out, so they hid their identity,” Mr. Kakroo told The Kashmir Walla over a phone-call on 15 April. “But regardless, we will give ration to anyone who needs it.” 

But Mr. Ali denies hiding his name. “I have been in the room at all hours. I don’t even have legs to step out,” he says. “No one came to take our names.”

The tehsildars are given the foodgrains from the office of deputy commissioner, Mr. Kakroo added. “We had distributed all our old stock, and were waiting for new food packets. It is being dumped right now, and we will start distributing them today.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ali and his roommates are killing hunger with tea. “We won’t come back next year. We will stay at home in our village and find some work there. Maybe we will open a shop,” he says. “There is nothing left here except pain.”

Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla

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