AT a time when social and physical distancing has become extremely important because of the threat of coronavirus infections around the world, migrant labourers from Bihar, UP and Punjab, who are presently struggling to find any work because of restrictions due to the COVID-19 related lockdown, continue to stay within small rented rooms in groups.
Health experts and the global health organization, World Health Organization (WHO), have been constantly emphasizing that not only social distancing, but physical distancing should also be maintained by people in order to curb the spread of coronavirus infections. This is why governments are not allowing gatherings even at religious places and people themselves hesitate to congregate in religious places. There are reports from various places across Kashmir that only upto three people (including Imam)
The deadly virus has killed over 244,000 people around the world and over 1300 in India. In Kashmir, the number of COVID positive has been alarmingly increasing especially when considered in terms of infections per million of population.
But social or physical distancing is something migrant labourers (mostly Bihari labourers), who have not been able to return to their homes in other states, find hard to come terms with.
Near Shalteng crossing, in the western part of the Srinagar city, I met eight labourers who were staying in a room with dimensions of 10x10 feet. All of them are from Bihar and they have now given up the hope of returning to their homes.
“Earlier (when the lockdown began) we were very desperate to go back to our homes, but we couldn’t get any transport,” said Anup Kumar, a Bihari labourer. “Now, we think it is all the same if we stay here or go home. The situation is same everywhere,” he added. According to Kumar, there is no work for migrant labourers or local labourers these days given the restrictions due to lockdown.
“If we had some work at construction sites or elsewhere, it would not be difficult. But we have to stay indoors all day and night,” Kumar said.
“We are aware about the Corona disease. It is very dangerous. We have also heard that people should maintain distance and a lot of people should not be staying in a single room. But, what can we do? We can’t afford a large room on rent,” said Ganesh, Kumar’s roommate.
“So, yes, it is a risk which we are taking. If any one of us contracts the infection, all of us will fall sick and may probably die. But, we can’t do anything about it,” Ganesh further said.
When asked if they take a lot of care about hygiene, Devinder Prassad, a labourer, who again lives with eight fellow labourers from Bihar in a 10x12 room at HMT-Srinagar, said: “We are trying our best to keep the room clean. That is what we can do. And we have also bought a few masks. Thankfully, no one among us has fallen sick so far.”
We, Prasad said, “had thought that the government will take care of our expenses and provide us with food and accomodation. But no one from the government visited us.” The government has taken has arranged lodging facilities for some migrant labourers at Srinagar and a few other towns, but, there are reports that most of them continue to live in groups in very small rooms in various places like in Shalteng and HMT Srinagar. This might prove dangerous for both the migrant labourers as well as the population considering what globally acclaimed health experts and organisations have been emphasizing about social and physical distancing.
Thousands of skilled and unskilled labourers come to Kashmir every year from states like Bihar, UP and Punjab. Earlier, they used to be confined to Srinagar and other major towns only, but now they find work opportunities in villages as well and work as labourers, carpenters, masons and painters. So, they are found in good numbers in every town and most of the villages in Kashmir.
With a massive growth in Kashmir’s lower middle class and middle class, large-scale construction of residential houses in Kashmir and the huge cultural changes in recent years in the region, local labour force has declined considerably within Kashmir valley. It is because of this reason that services of labourers from Bihar and other places are now even used in packaging of apples, Wazwan (a way of preparing different mutton dishes unique to Kashmir and the forte of people with specific skills in Kashmir only) wood carving, paddy plantation, paddy harvesting, and several other sectors. Construction work in Kashmir is largely dependent on migrant skilled and unskilled labourers in Kashmir and dependence on them in other sectors is only increasing with the social and economic changes taking place within this region.
Though not a lot of labourers had arrived in Kashmir when the lockdown began, official estimates say that around 22,000 migrant labourers are still stuck in Kashmir. Most of these labourers rent rooms in groups in order to make the monthly rent affordable for themselves. If seven-eight people stay together in a small room, it means each of them pays somewhere around 150 rupees every month as his share of the total monthly rent.
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