Migrants on Move: Desperate Bids and Bumpy Ride on J&K’s Horror Highway

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Amid mounting labour crisis in mainland, hundreds of migrant workers have started foot journey from mountains on the landslide-prone Srinagar-Jammu highway, even as Shramik trains and buses have been deployed for their homecoming.

 Swati Joshi

IN the wee hours of May 17, 2020, Suresh Kumar finally managed to embark on a desperate home journey to Utter Pradesh.

The 35-year-old house painter had earlier come out thrice, but cops enforcing COVID lockdown had derailed the same and sent him packing to his rented room in Srinagar.

That day, as he finally succeeded, it appeared a much-relieved drive, until it became a nightmarish journey on the horror highway — the only surface link connecting Kashmir with the rest of the world.

In the 40-kilometer long Ramban-Ramsoo stretch of the nearly 300-kilometre long Srinagar-Jammu highway, he had to wait for the road clearance, as two workers were killed and 7 others injured that day.

Notorious for erosion and shooting stones, the uncertain thoroughfare was hit by a massive landslide burying nine vehicles on May 17.

The incident is believed to have happened due to the negligence of the contractor company, CCPPV, carrying out excavation work from Nashri to Banihal.

By the time, Suresh reached Seeri Ramban, the erosion spot, a rescue operation was already underway.

“Even as the vehicular traffic was moving ahead,” Suresh said, “the battered highway scenes made it a scary site. In panic, I even told the driver, ‘Bhaya, let’s go back to Kashmir.’ But then, he said, ‘Take it easy. It’s a usual journey for us on this road.’ Throughout our journey to Jammu, I kept praying for our safety.”

The hazardous drive only made his homecoming as a harrowing experience.

But what Suresh experienced has been a lingering gripe of Kashmiris since 1947—when their sole surface communication became this erstwhile pony track used by Jammu-based Dogra Maharajas.

The fair-weather highway not only holds life in Kashmir hostage, but also sends body bags to the valley. It’s said that the hostile highway has consumed more lives, than the raging strife in the backyards of Kashmiris.

Landslide at Ramban (File Pic)

At about the same when Suresh was following the footsteps of his troubled tribe heading home in hordes from cities and countryside, Saleem Ahmad, a barber from Bihar, began his home journey.

As part of the pandemic-induced workforce exodus, Saleem witnessed desperate homecoming bids and bumpy ride on the highway.

“Unlike other places, we weren’t starving in the valley,” the fresh-faced barber, who would earn around Rs 1500 during the pandemic lockdown in Srinagar, said.

“But since we were told it’s a long haul, most of us got desperate to join our families back home.”

Both Suresh and Saleem arrive with a workforce influx in the region every year. Being a good wage provider, Jammu and Kashmir is home to many migrant workers. From construction to smalltime industries, these migrant workers play an important role in various spheres of life in the erstwhile state.

According to Indian Wage Report 2018, regular wages in urban areas are highest in Haryana—followed by Assam, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Karnataka.

In rural areas, J&K rank second, amongst states with the highest wages.

Lately, these migrant labourers started hitting the highway after Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that coronavirus is here to stay, and that people should learn to live with it.

With no source of earning in the unending lockdown, the main question stuck in every migrant workers’ mind is about their survival.

As they struggle to sustain a livelihood during this crisis, many videos that went viral on social media depict their traumatic plight and unsettling home journey.

“The main reason for their migration is uncertainty of essentials,” Javeed Ahmad, whose CHINAR International NGO currently works for the welfare of migrant labourers, told Kashmir Observer.

“But fewer workers are migrating from Srinagar and other parts of the valley because many NGOs are covering their needs and delivering essentials at their doorsteps.”

Chinar International focuses on the empowerment of orphans, vulnerable children and marginalized youth through education and socio-economic initiatives.

“During this pandemic,” Ahmad continued, “we’re also working to provide personal hygiene products for women and children.”

Even then, the lockdown distress is triggering a panic flight of migrants from the region.

As of May 27, J&K administration had sent 26564 outbound migrant workers stranded in different parts of the region through 16 Shramik special trains from Katra.

Though the facilities of the train are available, but some desperate migrant workers, oblivious of the highway status, are covering their home journey on foot.

Lately, a group of 25 labourers walked around 100kms of distance overnight from Shopian to Surankote, where they were stopped by the district administration and put under necessary quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.

“When the sole purpose of leaving home for a better life is not getting fulfilled,” said Suresh, the house painter, “people like us are left with no other choice, than to return to our home, where we may at least grow some food and survive.”

 

 

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