“Janab, kaam nai mil rah. Covid ne sab khatam kar diya. Jo thoda bacha tha, Modi ji ne bandh karwa diya. Jab sab kuch online hai, toh hamari rozi-roti ka kaya hoga, tum socho!”
(“Sir, we are not getting work. Covid-19 has finished everything. Whatever little work was left was closed down by Prime Minister Modi. Just think, if everything goes online, what will happen to our livelihoods?”)
These are the words of Bashir Ahmad, 35, a second-generation Kashmiri migrant labourer, who works as a porter in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh. Ahmad came to Shimla around 15 years ago and has been working here ever since then, and was more or less content until the outbreak of Covid-19, and the lockdown thereafter.
During the lockdown, I spent 33 days inside Jama Masjid’s cosy night-time shelter. It’s an old mosque in the middle of Shimla town, where 150-200 Kashmiri migrant workers usually stay together paying a nominal rent for lodging. They eat at hotels run by their fellow Kashmiris within the complex or else they collectively cook in groups of six to seven people.
“Everything was closed all over the place. We had locked ourselves inside the mosque. Our mobility was restricted. The policemen posted outside the mosque did not allow us even to peep out. A few days later, we started running out of rations and eatables. There were no means of earning because everything outside was shut,” he recalls.
Faiz Ahmad Wani, 40, another Kashmiri porter, recounts the days of lockdown as a period of trauma.
“For a few days, it looked like things will be fine soon. But then the lockdown got extended. A curfew was also imposed. All our savings got exhausted. There was nothing to eat. The administration sent 20 to 30 kg of rice but there were 148 persons to feed. We feared, if not by Covid-19 infection, we would certainly die of starvation. Finally, the government agreed to send us back home. They granted the necessary relaxations for inter-state movement and allowed us to hire buses,” he recalls.
But that was only after CPM MLA Rakesh Singha, in April 2020, went on a protest and hunger strike in favour of Kashmiri migrants demanding the provision of adequate rations and lodging facilities in tune with social distancing norms or allowing them to return to their homes in Kashmir.
Three years down the line, things have changed almost drastically for Kashmiri migrants who, in Shimla’s parlance, are referred to as ‘Khan’ or ‘Khan bhai’.
There are roughly 5,000 to 6,000 Kashmiri migrants with a few of them from second or even third generations, working in the hill town. After the pandemic, the number has reduced by around half, for many who returned to their homes in Kashmir during the pandemic did not consider coming back for a host of reasons.
Asks Nazir Ahmad Wani, 31, “There is no work. Tourism has declined. It is just a weekend affair. The hotel business is down. Trade is hit. The buying and selling of goods have gone online. Where is the scope for us in this kind of situation?”
The only two businesses where the Khans are getting work are either the delivery of LPG cylinders from warehouses to households or the delivery of packed milk in bulk reaching Shimla early in the morning.
“If Modi is allowed to have his way with digitisation, he will even shut down these two avenues. We will be left with no option but to go back to Kashmir. Online shopping and trading have ‘squeezed’ everything else,” rues Javed Mir.
This year, it was a double whammy for the Khans. As Shimla went without snow, they did not get daily labour jobs for clearing snow.
Every year, during snowfall, the Shimla Municipal Corporation would hire additional labour —mostly Khans or Nepalis— to do manual snow clearance work to clear road blockades, remove fallen trees, and restore retaining walls — structures that retain soil or snow along a slope. This year, due to a snowless winter, the corporation did not hire them for daily wage labour.
“Our hope to get work during winter has failed. It’s a traumatic situation to sit idle and waste our time,” says Ghulam Ali, 42.
Khans are indispensable to Shimla’s daily life since most goods in the hill town are carried manually. They have a reputation for carrying heavy loads —from LPG cylinders, furniture, and rations to heavy home utilities— and delivering them safely at the destination without any hassle. Moreover, they have been doing this for decades.
Admits B.S Nainta, a retired IAS officer, “Nothing from bread and milk to retail goods can move in the town without the Khans. They have become the town’s lifeline.”
Shimla Deputy Commissioner Aditya Negi says, “Right now there is no specific policy for Kashmiri migrant labourers. But whatever norms apply to migrant workers in the state are applicable to this section of people as well. Their issues were addressed during the pandemic too.”
Ahmad, 75, who hails from Qazigund, Kashmir, says, “Kashmiri labourers are truly in grave distress. There are no jobs in Kashmir. That has forced many to migrate to Shimla. There was a time when I used to earn Rs 18,000 to 20,000 a month. Now, it is just a few hundred rupees a day, sometimes even less than the daily wage earners.”
Some young Kashmiri migrants have diversified to selling dry fruits and Kashmiri handicrafts and shawls, running dhabas (roadside restaurants), meat shops, tea stalls, and also mobile repair shops. Few who are fluent in English have started working as tourist guides and in hotels. However, given that there have been no foreign tourists coming to Shimla since February 2020, they are currently engaged in porters’ jobs.
“As the problem of unemployment is huge in Kashmir, several of the youth who are graduates or post-graduates were working as labourers. Some of them went to Kashmir during the pandemic and did not return after they realised that they will not be able to make enough money,” says Abid Hussain, a 47-year-old native of Anantnag.
Balbir Thakur claims that the number of Kashmiri porters has come down drastically, especially during the pandemic. This is mainly because their daily earnings have come down. Barring those attached with LPG agencies or large grocery and other stores, the rest are not finding work to make ends meet.
According to Thakur, one of “the best qualities of Khans” is their ability to lug heavy loads to areas inaccessible by road.
“As children, we used to describe them as camels of the hills for their unparalleled strength and endurance. They have been virtually carrying the state’s economy on their shoulders but now they are really in bad times," says the former Superintendent of Police.