Less than a week since five labourers who hailed from Bengal’s Murshidabad district were shot dead in Katrasu village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam, migrant workers have started fleeing the Valley.
While the fear is palpable, for Kashmir, this would naturally mean a major hit to the economy.
The real estate sector and other associated sectors like brick kiln and cement will be adversely affected. The Kashmir province houses a strong base of around 4 lakh non-local labourers, while the four regions combined -- Kargil, Leh, Srinagar and Jammu – house 8 lakh non-local labourers. Most of them are associated with the realty sector besides the horticulture and agriculture sectors.
“The killings have created fear psychosis among them (non-locals). I used to get around 30 to 40 non-locals for domestic help per month. In the month of October, only seven of them arrived from different states. I had around 140 non-locals at my camp, but 60 of them left in October,” said Irfan Ahmed, head of Comfort Vision Domestic Help Service.
The Kashmiri population, which is largely dependent on labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh is now left in a lurch. The average hiring cost for a labourer, which was around Rs 30,000, is also likely to double in the wake of non-locals leaving the Valley.
Ahmed said that the wages would sky-rocket. “There is a lot of demand, but I have only few of them left here.”
On October 29, militants killed five non-local labourers from West Bengal in a major attack in turmoil-hit southern Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Immediately, the West Bengal government decided to bring 131 labourers back from Jammu and Kashmir. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the killings “pre-planned murders” and hit out at the Centre over the security scenario in the Valley.
Subsequently, on November 4, militants lobbed a grenade at Srinagar’s busiest Goni Khan Market, killing a non-local street vendor, identified as Rinkoo Singh, of Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, and left more than 20 injured. With the killing of Rinkoo Singh, the death toll of non-labours has risen to 12 since October 14.
On August 3, militant commander Riyaz Naiko in an audio message had warned non-locals against staying in Kashmir. He had asked them to pack their bags in case “special provisions are scrapped”. Naikoo is affiliated with the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen.
“There are two points. First, under no circumstance killing innocent people, who have nothing to do with Kashmir problem, is acceptable. Second, by killing innocents, you are setting your own cause back. The world now sees you (these groups) as terrorists,” former interlocutor of Jammu and Kashmir Radha Kumar told News18.
With the leaving of non-local labourers, labour wages in the Valley have drastically escalated. While the non-local labourers used to charge Rs 500, locals charge between Rs 650 and Rs 800.
“The local labourers are not skilled like non-locals. I have been calling them over phone, but no one is willing to come back,” said Khawar Hussain, owner of Messer Alliance Construction.
Hussain said that presently his firm is working on six construction sites, but of these, only one is functional while work has stopped in the other five sites. “We are working on only one site this time. That site in inside NIT, Srinagar. It is a bit safe inside the campus. Work at other five places has been halted and none of my labour force is willing to come back to Kashmir,” Hussain said. He said that his firm has more than 70 non-local labourers and all have left the Valley except those working at the NIT site.
Muhammad Aalam, a painter from Bihar, who has been working in Kashmir for the past decade and residing in the main town of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, usually goes home in the first week of January. This time, he decided to leave the Valley two months before the scheduled time.
Following the spate of killings, he left on November 6.
“We had asked Muhammad Aalam to paint our residential house, but he simply refused. He usually leaves the Valley in the first week of January. He fears for his life after what happened in Kulgam,” said Shafat Hussain, a resident of Anantnag district.
Majority of the government-run projects are also undertaken by non-locals in Kashmir. “Around 130 non-locals from West Bengal have already left the Valley. It will adversely affect all other non-local labourers who are presently in Kashmir,” said financial researcher Bilal Ahmad Pandow.
Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Roads and Building Department, Kashmir Division, Sami Arif Yesvi told News 18 that work on all major developmental projects in Kashmir has come to a stop due to onset of winters. “We try to finish all the major works before the month of October. Our department’s major focus will be on snow clearance which is done by the local labourers here.”
The locals would perhaps help the department during winters but the question is how many (non-locals) would return in the next season. It will indeed be hard for these workers to convince their families that Kashmir is safe for them.
The author is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.