As the sun ascends higher in the sky, a group of migrant workers are busy building a temporary, three-room shelter in Budgam in Kashmir. They are putting up brick walls without using any mortar mix. This shelter in the Valley will be home to 23 migrant workers for the next seven months. They will stay, cook and sleep here without having to pay any rent. For a living, they will work at the brick kilns in Budgam. Seven migrant workers have arrived; the rest will arrive by mid-April.
Pappu Khan, 45, a migrant labourer from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, is laying bricks, each in its designated spot, with the precision of an artist. When asked for photographs, he appears nervous and insists that no photographs are taken. Khan, a father of three, is reticent to talk about the political situation in the Valley, but does not mind discussing the weather. According to Khan, the weather in the Valley is becoming increasingly hot, with little difference between Kashmir and Pilibhit. In the previous years, work would begin in mid-April, but now the weather allows them to start work in March.
By a rough estimate, around 300,000 labourers migrate to Kashmir every year, with the majority coming from Araria, Supaul, Samastipur, and West Champaran districts of Bihar. The development of crucial infrastructure like roads, dams, houses and malls largely depends on these manual labourers who hail mainly from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and parts of West Bengal.
In the recent past, the flow of migrant workers to the valley has taken a hit because of two factors—the lockdown and the recent spate of targeted killings of migrant labourers by militants.
In June last year, two labourers—including Dilkush Kumar, a 17-year-old boy from the Purnia district of Bihar—were killed in the Chattergam area of Budgam.
On October 29, 2019, in Katrasoo village of Kulgam district in South Kashmir, five daily wage labourers were killed while they were working in apple orchards. The victims were identified as Sheikh Kamrudin, Sheikh Mohammad Rafiq, Sheikh Muzaffar, Rafiq Sheikh and Zahoor Sheikh—all of them from the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. The killings triggered an early exodus of migrant workers that year.
Later, in 2020, two workers from Bihar, Jai Lal and Ram Pravesh Singh, were killed in a grenade attack in Sopore. In November 2021, a large-scale exodus of labourers was prompted in South Kashmir after militants shot dead two migrant labourers and wounded another in the Wanpoh area of South Kashmir.
Since the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, a spate of such targeted killings has left migrant labourers terrified. The police say it’s a strategy by terrorists to spread terror in the Valley.
But nothing deters Khan. He first came to Kashmir, his “second home”, in 2000. For him, the militarisation and the insurgency of early 2000s did not pose a significant threat to migrant labourers as they were able to move around freely without facing any issues. He has been in the region through political tensions and the pandemic, but he hardly feels unsafe. But he understands why migrant workers from other states who come to Kashmir to work might be feeling a bit anxious. “Now the situation is different,” he says.
The brick kilns in Kashmir rely heavily on these migrant workers. In March 2020, when the first nationwide lockdown was announced, not many migrant labourers were in Kashmir. They usually arrive in April. But they could not travel to Kashmir after the extension of the lockdown. As a result of this, operations at brick kilns came to a complete halt. Frustrated with the lockdowns, brick kiln owners worked closely with the government so that their regular labourers from UP and Bihar could gradually come to Kashmir in trains and buses.
Khan, who had arrived in Kashmir in 2019, stayed back in the Valley during the lockdown with 10 others. Initially, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of staying back and thought about returning, but his employers insisted he stayed. “The brick kiln owners with whom we have been working for decades provided us with food during the pandemic,” says Khan.
In July 2020, the government facilitated the movement of about 23,000 migrant labourers to work in the brick kilns and later permitted 2,000 labourers to enter the Valley each day. After the abrogation of Article 370, there has been an uptick in construction activities in Kashmir. “Previously, construction work was not happening on this scale. Kashmir needs more labourers now than ever before,” says Khan.
As the day wears on, the workers take short breaks to rest. According to Khan, most of the labourers from Uttar Pradesh come from the Pilibhit district. He is the head labourer who usually brings along a large number of labourers from the district and takes responsibility for their safety. “We prefer that the labourers do not bring their families along. This helps us save some money for our families back home, and also, we don’t have to look for separate accommodations for families,” he says.
Another labourer, Shoib, is new to the Valley and works under Khan. On March 11, Shoib boarded a train to Jammu from Bareilly after paying Rs 660 for a ticket. For him, the ticket from Jammu to Srinagar was expensive. “It was around Rs 1,000 for each labourer,” he says.
Shoib is young and single. He finds the weather, good wages, and an abundance of water in the Valley suitable. “This place is so different. The culture, the way people dress, their manner of speaking are all different,” says Shoib, visibly excited about his surroundings. He is mesmerised by the Valley’s spring. “This is an amazing place,” he says. While Shoib is still interested in the conversation, Khan interrupts him and seeks his help in stacking the bricks. Shoib walks reluctantly towards the brick structure to assist Khan.
Their manager, Abdul Majeed, is a local Kashmiri. He says migrant labourers are scared after the spate of fatal attacks on migrant workers in recent years. “But if they stop coming to the Valley, there will be no work at the brick kilns, and it will affect construction activities,” he says. After the targeted killing of a labourer in Budgam in June last year, operations at a number of brick kilns came to a halt, and many labourers left. “A large number of labourers stayed back though,” he adds.
For Musafir, a labourer from West Bengal’s Malda district, Kashmir has become an unpredictable destination. He does shuttering work and stays in Ganderbal district. “After the killings of labourers in 2021, we were terrified. The police, however, provided us with round-the-clock security in the area and the security personnel warned us to be cautious,” he says. “We are labourers. We come here for work. We have got nothing to do with the politics of this place. We don’t know why we are being targeted,” says Musafir.
By Naseer Ganai in Budgam