The Hollowing out of Labour in Kashmir:Social,Cultural and Political Consequences

 An acute problem that is faced by developed and developing economies alike is the “hollowing out” of a mid(or intermediate level) jobs and even “ low” level ones.  This “trend”) accrues from the confluence of technology and forces of globalization.  Machines, are replacing man in many domains of work. Jobs or work is essentially being hollowed out largely in the middle. This has class ramifications; among other things it means the hollowing out of the working class and can even have political ramifications. In Kashmir, however, while the problem is almost the same, the causality is reversed: the working class and labour is getting hollowed out and replaced not by machines but by migrant labour. (In a different permutation and combination, this “trend” can also be observed in more prosperous countries where immigrant labour fills in the lower end of the labour spectrum. Germany’s 1970 program of “Guest workers’ might constitute a classic example here).

 In Kashmir, the hollowing out of labour is evident at a range of levels- from the “ordinary” labourer to the barber to the painter to the mason and carpenter, hardly any Kashmiris can be found. Often times, it is non locals who are at the fore front of this end of the labour spectrum in Kashmir. The reasons are manifold and pertain to aspiration, class, status , leisure and yes, even laziness. Low end of the labour spectrum in Kashmir, unfortunately has a negative social tag attached to it.  Barbers, carpenters, masons etc are held to be at the bottom of the social pyramid. Enter aspiration here. Aspiration or aspiring for better status and social acceptability is as human as can be. So aspiring to move out of a socio-economic class can not and should not be begrudged. The aspirations of people in the lower end of the labor spectrum to move out of this class are natural then and fall into a clear pattern. But there is another angle and factor at work here: leisure and laziness. Kashmiris, by and large are not a hard working, ambitious people. There are neither major bread and butter issues at stake in Kashmir. This lack of a want feeds into the temperament of people: mostly, people do not want to work hard and desire to move the socio- economic scale wherein hard work is not involved.

 In combination, all these factors build into a loop and make Kashmiris, generally speaking, loath to do low end of the labour spectrum. This has social, economic and cultural consequences.

 Socially, it means that there is a rush to middle class status in Kashmir. The rush to this status means that people , at times, can take recourse to unethical and even illegal means to make it into this slot. But the problem is that the middle class has its structural limits and its absorptive capacity while great and expansive also has limits. And besides, people are needed for doing the lower end of the work.  If Kashmiris are unwilling to this work, others will fill in the vacuum. In a case panning out in the mechanisms and forces of supply and demand, the  supply gap will be filled by outside (migrant labor).

 This has cultural implications: there are certain occupations in Kashmir like bakery, cuisine(wazwan), or even masonry and carpentry and other allied work that have cultural connotations and implications.  The moment Kashmiris will cease to do these kind of work (labor), it will be case of style over substance. That is, while the name will be Kashmiri but the heart or substance will not be Kashmiri. In other words, the cultural essence of these specialist and specialized crafts will be lost. I may sound xenophobic here and my argument may correspond to cultural essentialism but labelling me as either would mean missing the point. Cultures are unique and porous at the same time. There are no ideal type or “pure” , organicist cultures but at the same time, there are certain cultural attributes that need to and must be preserved. It is to the preservation of aspects of Kashmiri culture and hence identity I have in mind.

Dilution or disappearance of these attributes would mean hollowing out of our culture and by inference or even corollary, identity. This has obvious political implications and carry stark connotations given the special status of Kashmir or the state of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian Union. If and when there is no unique and distinctive identity for and of Kashmiris, our argument dies and we lose our distinctiveness politically, socially and economically. In other words then, by facilitating , enabling and being willing accomplices to the hollowing out of our labour and allied activities, we are accomplices in what may be called political euthanasia or suicide. This is as alarming as can be. The question is can this be prevented and if so, how?

Preventing total slide into comprehensive hollowing out may be possible but it would require a combination of political and social will complemented by prudent and effective public policy. Socially, we, as a society need to work on removing the stigma associated with labour at the lower end of the spectrum. Our religion enjoins us to be equal as it holds that all Creation is created equal. Inequality in society- social or economic- is a social construct and a matter of chance. We must then disavow crude labels and stereotypes and work towards genuine and real equality. Social efforts need to be complemented by political sanctity to an equal and an egalitarian society- all under girded by a vigorous public policy action. The thrust of public policy in this domain must be on wages and wage price equalization which incentivizes movement of Kashmiri labour into even “ lower” end of the labour spectrum.  It is in combination and syncing of these actions that Kashmir might remain Kashmir. If, however, things are allowed to drift, then Kashmir and Kashmiri culture will be a relic of the past- a scenario that will be laden with gloom and doom. It is to preventing this scenario that we must devote our collective energies. Let the process begin now!


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