Two months before fifty-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Dar began to construct a new house in February, he had sold his old house on the outskirts of Srinagar and shifted to a rented apartment in the same neighborhood. But as the new house took a shape, the prices of the construction material: bricks and sand, rose; drying up his savings. 

It had been seven months since Jammu and Kashmir, now a union territory after the Narendra Modi led central government revoked its semi-autonomous status in August 2019, was under government-imposed clampdown. But Mr. Dar had decided to construct his house not knowing that a month later COVID-19 pandemic was about to lockdown Kashmir.

On 19 March, the administration imposed a COVID-19 lockdown across all ten districts of Kashmir to curb the spread of Coronavirus. Seven months long clampdown was now extended as COVID-19 lockdown. All business establishments, schools, factories, shops, and public transport continued to remain shut. Construction work too came to halt, while non-local laborers, who had left in August 2019, stayed back in their homes.

In the last three decades, houses in Kashmir have adapted to new designs and construction material, with most construction based upon concrete, using bricks, sand, and cement. Earlier most houses were built by using mud, mud-bricks, and wood. Kashmiris spend a fortune on building houses, with most being three-storey tall and having large windows and painted tin sheets on sloping roofs. More than just the structure, a large amount is spent on the interiors, using wood panels and marble flooring. 

Following the trend, Mr. Dar, who designed his two-storey new house himself, is spending the sale money from his old house, a loan from a relative, and all his savings in the construction. 

But for the Dar family of five, constructing the house has been hard with the rising prices of bricks in the last few months. “We used to buy a truckload of bricks for 21000 rupees before the lockdown and now the same is sold for 35000 rupees. Brick kiln owners don’t maintain the prices as per the government’s fixed-rate but sell at their own inflated prices,” said Mr. Dar.

In 2015, the J-K administration fixed rates of A-grade bricks at 18000 rupees per 3000 bricks, including loading and unloading costs. But Zahoor Ahmad Malik, the president of Brick Kilns Owners Association (BKOA) said that the government revised the fixed-rate after five years in August 2020. “The cost now has been fixed at 7000 rupees per 1000 bricks,” he said.

Owing to the rising prices and scarcity of labourers, Mr. Dar had stopped the construction work last March. He restarted only after two and a half months in May because the family “needs to leave the rented accommodation soon”.

As the majority of the non-local labourers, who do most of the work at construction sites as skilled workers, had left post-August 2019, the COVID-19 lockdown had delayed their return. Construction activities too were officially disallowed by the government due to the lockdown. The continuous halting in work also led to low production at Brick Kilns in Kashmir. 

However, last July, non-local labourers who work at brick kilns were allowed to return to Kashmir. But only after a few days, thirty-one tractors of brick kiln operators were seized after they were caught ferrying 200 non-local workers without COVID-19 testing in Srinagar. 

While Mr. Dar blames the brick kiln owners for rising prices but Mr. Malik, the president of BKOA, said that the “laborers demanded extra salary to restart work during the lockdown” and “less production led to increases in rates”. “As most of the brick kilns produce bricks between June to mid-October in Kashmir, this year the production was less due to delay. We began production late because of the shortage of workers,” said Mr. Malik.

However, Mr. Malik adds that the administration is supposed to call the owners of brick kilns to decide fixed rates, as per the rules. But nobody was informed. “We had asked them [authorities] to see the situation of brick kilns, to speak to the owners and laborers. There should have been a fixed rate of bricks at Rs. 8000 per 1000 bricks,” he said.

While reasons for bricks may have been a shortage of labourers but residents like Mr. Dar are not only finding only that expensive. The price of a truckload of sand has also shot up in the past few months. “Before the lockdown, I used to buy a truckload of sand for 5000 rupees and now it has increased to 12,000 rupees,” said Mr. Dar.

Thirty-year-old Lateef Ahmad Gojri, who owns a tipper and sells sand for construction purposes, had been charging 2500 rupees as transportation for each truckload. 

“The sand extractors are giving us sand at the cost of 6500 rupees per truckload and we sell it at 9000 rupees, including the transportation charge,” said Mr. Gojri, adding that before the pandemic they used to sell sand at the cost of 8000 rupees.

The prices have not only impacted residents but also the construction businesses, who have witnessed losses. Imran Ahmad Bhat, 30, a supervisor at Zargar builders in Srinagar, which has built over a hundred residential structures in Srinagar and Ganderbal, said that the increasing rates of construction material have negatively impacted business. “There is no profit we are earning. It’s completely our loss,” he said.

Mr. Bhat, who hopes to shift to a new house soon is continuing to buy the material at the inflated prices as leaving the house under-construction ahead of the winters only delays the work. For now, he uses every penny left to put into finishing the construction and leaving the rented accommodation.

The story originally appeared in our 14-20 September 2020 print edition.

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