In Kashmir’s lockdowns, poor have to choose between Covid-19 or poverty

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In a single room mud house in Srinagar, Shameema Akhter was waiting for her husband who had gone to borrow money so he could buy medicines for her. This wasn’t the first time her husband Ishfaq Bhat, a 36-year-old former sales executive, had to borrow money.

Bhat lost his job, selling cosmetics, in 2019 when New Delhi abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy after enforcing a clampdown that lasted months. A second lockdown with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic continued his unemployment.

When the lockdown was eased for a few months last year, businesses slowly reopened and Bhatwas again hired by his former employer, until the second wave hit the region — prompting yet another lockdown and unemployment for him.

Bhat’s last job drew him a modest salary of ₹5,000 — subsistence for the family of four. “It was difficult to manage the expenses but we were doing just fine,” said Akhter, 35. Bhat is unable to find work today and has incurred debt as he ensured medicines for his diabetic wife.

Their relatives provide money at times, “but for how long can they help me?,” said Akhter, adding that they now took alms from anyone who would offer. “Yesterday a person came and gave me ₹600. I got some fruits for the children,” she lamented. “We were poor but the lockdown worsened our situation and made us poorer.”

Poorer every day

Kashmir economy
Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla.

October 2017 was the last time when 49-year-old Mohammad Altaf Topisaaz used his skill as a coppersmith. A master at the art, Topisaaz was hit by pellets fired by government forces to disperse a crowd protesting an alleged incident of “braid chopping” in downtown Srinagar’s Bohrikadal area. He lost his eyesight that month.

His work as a coppersmith kept his family of five going but he is unable to work today. Doctors have operated on his eyes six times since he was injured but have been unable to restore vision. “His left eye is completely damaged, there is no way he can get his eyesight back,” Topisaaz recalled the doctors having said.

In a desperate attempt to keep his family out of poverty, Topisaaz took out a loan from the bank and established a grocery store. It worked well for the family for a year but he couldn’t continue as his debt kept increasing.

“It was the day when we lost everything,” he said of the day he was hit by pellets. “I couldn’t even work somewhere else.”

Topisaaz’s children studied in a private school but as their economic condition deteriorated, he reluctantly shifted them to a government school as he was unable to pay the hefty fees. “Sometimes they tell me that they don’t want to go to a government school but I can’t help it,” he said. “I am totally helpless.”

The August 2019 lockdown had made the going even more difficult for Topisaaz. He would have worked as a labourer but with all economic activity forced shut by the government, there was nothing he could do to earn. The family had slipped into poverty.

To ease the pressure on Topisaaz, his fifteen-year-old son began selling cheap clothes on a makeshift stall. “That’s how our household runs,” said Topisaaz, but the teenager’s income, too, was hit with the third lockdown being imposed. “At this time, it is very difficult for a poor person to live his life.”

Caught between the dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic and the debilitating economic losses of the lockdown, the Topisaaz family finds itself in a situation where it only stands to lose. Even if it kept them safe from the virus, poverty is inevitable.

“We know the lockdown is for betterment but we can’t see any betterment for us,” Topisaaz said.

Sheikh Aashiq, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), said that the situation in Kashmir was different from mainland India. “In Kashmir, it is not only the Covid lockdown due to which we are suffering,” he said. “We have been suffering right from the August 2019 clampdown.”

Thousands of families associated with the tourism industry, horticulture, and trade have been badly hit by three lockdowns — many have lost their only sources of income. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, nearly six lakh lost their jobs by March 2021.

“Economy is in bad shape,” rued Ashiq.

But the ones who are the most affected are those in the informal sector of the economy, who depend on their daily incomes to feed their families in the evening. “At this point of time,” said Ashiq, “the government should announce relief for downtrodden people who don’t have any work right now.”

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