Twenty-six years ago, Zulfikar Ali left his home in Bihar’s Motihari village first time as an eleven year old boy to earn a livelihood in Kashmir.
Mr. Ali, now 37, initially worked odd construction jobs in the Valley. But in 2011, he fell on the tracks of Jammu railway station, and a train ran over his right leg, which then had to be amputated. Now, he spends his days in Srinagar selling paan mostly to other migrant workers at Hawal Chowk.
The neighbourhood is well-known for being home to thousands of men from different states — predominantly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal — who begin pouring into Srinagar around March and stay generally till September. They work blue-collar jobs in unorganised industries, and live together in squalid rooms where they also cook meals on small gas stoves and sleep on the floor.
“Now, I have only 158 rupees”
Working in Kashmir hasn’t been easy in the recent years. From clampdowns to shutdowns, business takes a hit. Only a few weeks since Kashmir was returning to normal business, the sudden lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), enforced in Srinagar since 19 March, wiped out ability to earn wages and buy food for workers like Mr. Ali.
They can’t go back home either; all transportation has been brought to a halt. By now, at least eleven people have been tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Kashmir, including two children. One person has succumbed to COVID-19.
The nationwide death toll, presently at thirteen, is expected to rise sharply this week as India stands at the cusp of community transmission, the third stage of the spread of the disease. On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown.
The lockdown has not only brought life to a halt but also threatened basic survival of many wage earners, who earn hand to mouth. While Mr. Ali’s wife and four children back home are relying on him to transfer them some cash, he has very little left for even himself.
“I have not been able to sell paan a single day since I came. I left home with 2,500 rupees. Now, I have only 158 rupees,” he says.
His building’s landlord runs a grocery store, from where the workers have brought rice, pulses, and potatoes on credit. But they are worried as to how long they can keep eating without paying.
Like Mr. Ali, generally, three to six men live in one room. They squeeze together to sleep on mattresses on the floor, and share blankets. Many rooms don’t have windows or any other source of light except a tungsten light bulb. They cook their food together on a small gas stove in a corner.
“Even if the trains start again, the landlord will not let us leave without paying the rent and for the food grains,” says 45-year-old Syed Ali, another occupant of the building who works as a mason.
“What will we eat if we don’t work?”
For years, Mr. Syed Ali’s usual routine would be to walk to the Hawal Chowk and wait for a Kashmiri man to come by in search of construction workers. But the lockdown has made it impossible.
“I have been coming to Kashmir for about two decades,” says Mr. Syed Ali. “Lockdowns are not new here; even during uprisings like in 2016 we were able to find work. This time the government forces are not allowing us to even step out for work. What will we eat if we don’t work?”
The countrywide lockdown ordered by the central government will last at least till 14 April, during which time all work in India’s large unorganised economy remains suspended. The government in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) has announced free ration for such low-income households, but migrant workers do not qualify for the benefit as they do not have residency documents to get a ration card.
Though, a few organisations have volunteered to distribute food in affected areas of Srinagar. In New Delhi, the Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman today announced a relief package under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana for those affected by the lockdown, including cash transfers.
Kashmir’s Divisional Commissioner, Pandurang Kondbarao Pole, told The Kashmir Walla that the administration has to wait for the guidelines of the scheme to understand what will be the benefits and who will be the beneficiaries.
“Prima facie, the migrant workers will be included,” Mr. Pole added. “The district administration in Budgam is regularly checking health of brick kiln workers; and kiln owners are supplying food. We also have surplus food stored for them.”
Even if they manage food but Mr. Syed Ali is also worried of contamination. Self-isolation is not an option he can afford. “We all have one washroom and one water tap in this building. If one of us gets infected, we are all at risk,” he says.
Though Mr. Zulfikar’s roommates have stepped out in search of work, he is not particularly afraid of contracting the disease through one of them: “God’s plan for killing people like us is simpler. Just make us work to death.”
Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.