Changemakers of Uri: Inside ‘Godforsaken’ Land’s Relief Operation

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Volunteer from a village helps in unloading the truck of supplies

As the poltergeist of a virus haunts the settlements in mountains and hills that seem like specks of uneven structures to the travellers’ eyes, a tiny yet impactful group of changemakers have been penetrating into these long-forgotten territories for aid-provision.

 Text/Photos by Sanika Athavale

RUSHING to and fro urban and rural Kashmir every day, Naveed Bukhtiyar (24) has been trying to identify ‘deserving’ families while working as the state coordinator for Karwan-e-Mohabbat.

As soon as pandemic lockdown was enforced, his friends had become accustomed to waking up to the pictures of isolated human settlements he would post in the wee hours of the morning. The posts were pictures of four-wheeler trunks stocked with ration kits, the sight of broken roads, the elbow grease involved in packing essential items, among many others.

Naveed Bukhtiyar on his way to supply ration kits early in the morning

Just before the holy month of Ramzan had culminated, Naveed and his team of volunteers were able to help around 90 and 400 families in Sopore and Uri respectively. They undertook the painful yet requisite task of identifying the poorest of people in these settlements and prioritising the needs of some over the rest in this sub-group.

“We gave extra attention to the needs of widows, the physically-challenged, cancer patients, and senior citizens,” Naveed said while speaking to the Kashmir Observer.

Ration kits prepared and packed in the car trunks

Uri tehsil in Baramulla district is akin to an armed camp. Most times, especially during winters when the roads are blocked, the local residents look for soldiers to help them in their daily activities since infrastructure to empower the common citizen is absent.

“Villages along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan have remained in the prisons of neglect and omission,” Naveed said. “Garkote, Mothal, Sukhdar, Dachi, Bandi, Dudran, Sultan Daki, etc. are inhabited by the most impoverished Kashmiris and we have been able to achieve some success in providing ration there.”

Mothal village in Uri

Changemakers like Naveed have been carrying out relief-work along the LoC during heavy shelling between the armed forces of India and Pakistan.

Working in similar conditions, a duo from Sultan Daki, comprising a middle school teacher and a young college graduate, have helped 70 families in procuring essential supplies during the pandemic.

  [L-R] Junaid and Abid

Speaking to the Kashmir Observer, Junaid Ahmad Mangral asserted that the biggest and only real victim of the lockdown is the labourer class.

“Kashmir is an expensive place to live,” Junaid said. “They [labourers] were already in a precarious condition pre-lockdown, and now they are worse than ever.”

Uri, he said, is populated by poor people, as 60-70 percent of its residents are below the poverty line (BPL).

The duo wanted to start relief work much earlier but during the early days of the pandemic, they feared that they might contract the virus in that process. It took some time, but they soon accepted COVID-19 as their new reality and began self-motivated volunteer work following their epiphany.

Their village, Sultan Daki, had been declared a red zone, causing them problems in executing relief operations.

“We decided to begin with Sarai Bandi which is inhabited by 10-12 families, because movement in our village was restricted,” Junaid said.

Starting from Sarai Bandi, they then shifted their focus to Dachi village’s Sokhi Dhani area – where out of the 30 families that live there, 20-25 are currently unemployed and in desperate need of help.

“Our way of providing relief was donating ration kits worth Rs 1000, constituting supplies which were sufficient to alleviate hunger for a family of four for 20 days,” Junaid informed.

Soon, when the word that two Sultan Daki residents were helping the needy spread, Junaid and Abid Mir received a call from a village called Navarunda which is inhabited by 20-25 families.

As they were fully aware that they might not be able to handle another operation by themselves, they contacted Karwan-e-Mohabbat’s Naveed Bukhtiyar, who had grown himself a reputation while carrying out relief operations.

A peek into the contents of the ration kits

Shortly after, the three came together to work in the villages surrounding Dachi and Sultan Daki.

With the monetary resources pooled through crowd-funding by Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Junaid, Abid, and Naveed were able to provide ration kits which included: ten kilograms of atta; two litres of cooking oil; two kilograms of chole and rajma each; half a kilogram of salt, red chilli powder, turmeric, and tea powder each; and lastly a box of dates for Eid-ul-Fitr which was imminent then.

Even as this team amongst many other Samaritans has tirelessly worked to help their brethren in distress, the large number of communities left out of these efforts have proved that the world is not a small place after all.

Eighteen-year-old Mohammed Sayyid from Kamalkote village of Uri has not seen any help come his way so far. Kamalkote is a border village near Kundi Bar Bjala, 20-25 km away from Uri main town.

Uri – Main Town

This lockdown has troubled Sayyid and his family to a point of hopelessness. He has been in the wait for his rightful monthly wages that haven’t been paid to him by his previous employer, since March. An amount of Rs 9000 is due but he has no inkling about when his hard earned money will be paid to him.

“I live with my family of ten and I haven’t earned a single paisa since the lockdown. The money for the manual labour my family members and I did before the lockdown hasn’t been paid to any of us. We are barely managing to eat and by some miracle are still breathing,” he told the Kashmir Observer in a voice that was arguably alive.

Mohammed Sayyid, 18, construction worker

Sayyid used to mainly engage in construction labour and is currently managing his daily meals through what he calls ‘food loans’.

“Labourers like us,” he said, “are able to eat the amount we earn per day. If we aren’t earning, then we aren’t eating as well. I have been loaning vegetables from the shopkeepers and have a large sum of debt building on my chest.”

Mohammed Saleem (45) from the same village faces a labyrinth of sick complications in this pandemic along with the same hunger-related problems.

He belongs to the rare group of Kashmiris who live in makeshift huts and don’t own a house of their own.

Saleem’s house was destroyed by the forces of nature during the earthquake that hit Uri in 2005. A government scheme promised the victims a new house, but 15 years since he has only spent his pennies on three rounds of applications that have amounted to nothing.

If this wasn’t enough of a depressant, he has an approximate of Rs 60,000 outstanding from the centrally-sponsored scheme, MGNREGA since 2017. He still travels pillar to post with his receipt for the payment but everytime the authorities conjure a different excuse to deny and delay his wages.

“Sometimes it is inflation, sometimes they say they just don’t have it, sometimes they claim that increasing material costs ate into my wages, etc. This past Eid I could not give my children a new pair of chappals even. How can I, when I have no money to eat?” he asked piercingly.

Mohammed Saleem with his MGNREGA receipt of outstanding wages

He has been keeping his family alive through financial and food loans which have now grown into a sum of Rs 60,000.

He owes Rs 10,000 to someone, Rs 15,000 to another and just like that with multiple loans, he owes Rs 60,000 – the same amount that he owed to him by the government.

In order to lessen the terrifying impact of the lockdown, he made an uber stressful sale of his cow so that he could afford a handful of foodgrains.

Saleem – A battered receipt

Syed Murtaza, a law student at Kashmir University, helped us at the Kashmir Observer reach Sayyid and Saleem. Murtaza has been helping other troubled neighbours during this pandemic. He also lives with Sayyid and Saleem in the same village where a lot of shelling has taken place recently.

“There has been a lot of property damage during the cross border shelling and since ours is a pahari area, life is managed with a lot of difficulty,” he said.

Zaffar Iqbal, a journalist working along the frontier told us that there are at least 40 villages near the LoC that are mostly populated by the labourer class. “The 2.5 month-long lockdown has rendered them completely jobless,” he said.

One of the main reasons why no aid has reached these distant corners is the fact that one has to obtain permission from the Indian armed forces to even step foot in these villages.

Chrunda, Hathlanga, Sourha and Silikot are the names of some of these villages which are facing a major shortage of essential goods. “Regular supply has also been handicapped due to the lack of proper road and connectivity,” Zaffar Iqbal added.

Hence, knowing this, the pressure of providing and helping is very strongly felt by these activists. However, even for them, supplying clean and safe drinking water has remained a conundrum unsolved.

Junaid Mangral’s village relies on water collected from the springs in Sultan Daki. Years ago, the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department had laid pipelines to help water reach the villagers.

But the result was achieved through such shoddy workmanship that every time the rains befell, the pipes were broken and water supply was disrupted for the next seven days.

The recent rains in Junaid’s village culminated with broken water pipes, and the labourers were left with dry throats in addition to their roaring stomachs.

Naveed Bukhtiyar, law graduate & RTI activist

Today, Naveed Bukhtiyar worries what will happen to the families he helped after the Karwan-e-Mohabbat-provided ration kits are consumed.

Understanding that state-owned resources need to be directed towards helping unemployed labourers, the law graduate filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the J&K High Court, asking the judiciary to pressurise NGOs in the region to help the underprivileged.

“In Kashmir, we have places with no roads, extremely poor mobile networks, and negligible electricity supply, and it is absolutely essential that relief reaches people in these locations,” he asserted.

He expects the court to order NGOs to work in Kashmir’s rural areas as “a lot of relief work has already been carried out in urban pockets”.

Judicial response directing Naveed to file a fresh PIL as the original was misplaced

However, in an unfortunate turn of events, the High Court informed him that their offices have misplaced the filed copy of his PIL and postponed the hearing of the same to June 3.

“After 20 days, what will become of those families?” Naveed wondered with a sense of foreboding.

In a premise where jockeying between formidable enmities is a way of life, a new enemy unheard of has scared these paharis into accepting self-punishing poverty as their new normal.

Naveed observed during his relief operations that apart from food supplies the most pressing need of the people was access to healthcare. The far flung rural villages have little or no healthcare facilities as per him.

Kidney patients are undertaking the painful and arduous journey from their pahari villages to Srinagar for dialysis, cancer patients are struggling to procure their special medicines, starving pregnant women are fearful of delivering malnourished babies, and other innumerable medical problems are haunting villagers.

The far flung village of Dudran

Rural-based Kashmiris, whose woes have been ignored for far too long sit hungry, thirsty, poor, and neglected during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Nevertheless, “people in these villages have also been helping each other before any relief came to them. They did their bit quietly without any social media posturing or publicity,” Naveed remarked.

Volunteers offloading relief trunk

Admirably, these changemakers have also assured that the distribution of ration kits takes place while maintaining the norms of social distancing. They have credited the villagers for their awareness and cooperation in the process.

“We have so much more to cover and so many people to reach but we lack the monetary and human resources. The court order will be imperative in improving the situation, if it ever comes – the way we expect it,” a hopeful Naveed concluded.

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Sanika Athavale

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