3D Effect: How Death, Disease, Distress Drive Begging in Kashmir

A burka-clad Kashmiri woman begging in Regal Chowk. KO photos by authors

Srinagar may be a forbidden capital for paupers, but some indescribable circumstances still force people to crowd the city for begging.

By Jahanuma Tahir, Sheikh Mehvish

NASREENA, a 28-year-old widowed mother of two children from Ganderbal district of Central Kashmir, comes every Friday to Dargah, Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar for begging to meet the medical expenses of her ailing son.

Back in 2014, she had happily married the “love of her life”, but two years later, her husband, a woodcutter, fell off a tree and died on spot. Besides a young widow, he’s survived by a son and a daughter.

While Nasreena was still grieving the loss of her husband, little did she know that one more misfortune was waiting to shake her life — her son’s severe illness.

Juggling between grief and worry, she took her son to hospital hoping that his reports would not be serious. But fate had something else in store for her.

Her son’s one kidney hasn’t developed properly and due to which his condition gets bad almost every day.

While struggling to make ends meet, Nasreena has to also arrange money for her son’s treatment costing her more than Rs 500 a week.

“Even after juggling between various jobs, I fall short of money to even fulfil my basic needs,” she said. “This forced me to come out and beg.”

In many parts of Srinagar, begging is seen as a serious social issue and a matter of concern. Due to the situation deteriorated by the last three-years of lockdown, many people are suffering poverty forcing them to beg for their livelihoods.

According to the 2011 census, the number of beggars in Jammu and Kashmir stands at 834, out of which 231 are women.

Apart from local beggars, the valley has witnessed a huge flow of paupers from other states. A rough survey done in 2019 showed that around 100 non-local beggars, most of them children, are stationed at various points from Regal Chowk to Amira Kadal in Srinagar. Most of them are from Rajasthan and its adjoining state.

But it’s the current situation—exacerbated by various economic factors—that is literally forcing natives, like Parvez Bhat, to ‘beg for life’.

Before August 2019, Parvez was supporting his family with his small-time poem’s job in a private school. Following the Government of India’s move to abrogate semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the ensued communication blockade rendered him jobless as the educational campuses became shut shops overnight.

As a home captive devoid of means and resources, he saw his family of five—wife, aged mother and three kids—literally struggling for survival. In desperation, he tried his hands here and there, but it didn’t help much. Some Samaritans also showed up with some relief at his doorsteps, but it couldn’t contain his household destitution. It was then he did something unexpected.

One Friday noon, as the faithful flooded a mosque miles away from his home for congregational prayers, he sat near at the stairs leading to the second floor of the praying hall. To conceal his identity and the possible shame, he lowered his head and spread his hand. “That very act shook me from inside and made me uncomfortable,” Parvez said, “but then I recalled the frown faces of my family members and swallowed a bitter pill.”

But when those congregations became proscribed during the pandemic, Parvez struggled further for his family’s sake. “One couldn’t even approach people for help during Covid,” he said. “The untouchability and hostility created by the disease gave us a hard time. But thanks to some local welfare bodies, we managed monthly ration and medicine.”

Today, Parvez’s school is yet to call him back for the job he lost in the political lockdown. His search for living has already failed. And given his weak body, he can’t even go for a daily labour job. Every Friday, he leaves home on the pretext of “some work” and ends up at the stairs of some distant mosque.

In Naya Kashmir, such cases of urban destitution caused by job losses are escalating right under the nose of the “development-driven” New Delhi-appointed regional administration.

“What we’re witnessing in contemporary Kashmir is the optics of delusion,” said Nimar Khan, a Sociology scholar from Srinagar. “While administration is bent on issuing order after order in a bid to change the social and political arithmetics on the ground, a new destitute class is growing and spreading like a disease.”

Lack of social welfare schemes to address this destitution, the budding sociologist said, is only making it a clear case of social anarchy in Kashmir today. “People have lost their jobs and livelihoods since 2019 and administration’s first priority should be their welfare. But instead, they’re busy allotting land to outsiders and armed forces. This is only going to make things worse in Kashmir.”

Observers in Srinagar link the surging begging cases with the economic collapse since August 2019. In fact, Kashmir’s oldest trade body, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) states that the valley has suffered a loss of around Rs 50,000 crore since 5 August 2019 which includes around Rs 10,000 crore in 2021.

“Every segment of the economy suffered huge losses and it will take years to revive our business and without government support, it isn’t possible,” Sheikh Ashiq, KCCI President, said.

“As the unemployment rate is increasing which indicates less work in the market, it will take time to take the business to the normal stage again as it was before August 05.”

Kashmir’s beleaguered unionist camp has weaponised this nosedived economic graph to castigate New Delhi’s policies in the erstwhile princely state.

Kashmiri woman showing medical prescription while begging in Srinagar.

But beyond the shrill created in the name of economy, Zaiba, an octogenarian hunchbacked widow from Rainawari, Srinagar, comes out daily on streets to survive another long winter in Kashmir.

She seeks help with a shivering hand, parched face and persistent prayers on her trembling lips.

A regular in Srinagar’s busy street, Zaiba goes to Hazrat Syed Merak Shah Kashani’s Shrine Shalimar on Fridays. Her senile and sluggish appearance compels many people to crowd around her for help. The mother’s misery is as long as Kashmir’s armed strife itself.

Back in the explosive nineties when Kashmir was witnessing raging militant-military clashes, her husband’s blood cancer forced her family to sell their house for his medical treatment. But all went into vain when he died in 1995.

Zaiba has five daughters of which three are married and had a son. “My son lived separately after his marriage but he used to give us some money for daily expenses,” the old mother said. “But he passed away few months ago due to brain haemorrhage.”

The grandmother used to work from home to home for daily chores like ‘tamul tchatun’ (rice cleaning) but because of old age she can’t see clearly now.

At her age, Zaiba barely survives on a widow fund launched by the government of J&K in 1995, with the aim to provide financial assistance to old age, destitute, widow, divorcee and others. The monthly assistance of this fund is Rs. 1000 only.

“But this money doesn’t make much difference to us as cost of living has gone up,” says Zaiba. “Some people donate clothes or sometimes we get it from the wall [of kindness], while others donate food.”

Since her present place of living isn’t suitable for winter, the old woman is looking for an alternate shelter. Her search for roof runs parallel with her regular street appearance for survival.

“Who wants to live like this,” she said, with an anguished voice. “But then what choice do I have?”

A quick ground review by Kashmir Observer reveals that an entire family begs for living in some cases, but mostly, only children or elders come out to seek public support. Many of these mendicants live in temporary shelters and feel humiliation to face public.

“That’s why I hide myself in burka, so that no one can recognize me,” Naseema said.

This 33-year-old woman from Srinagar’s Qamarwari area comes to Dargah Hazratbal Shrine every Friday to beg. She chooses a place of seclusion for seeking public help. Unlike the menacing street beggars running after passersby, she hardly raises her voice for help. This makes many believe that this veiled young Kashmiri woman sitting at the corner of the shimmering shrine is just a circumstantial beggar than a chronic one.

Naseema’s husband, Javaid Ahmad was a labourer by profession. While working at some place he fell off the roof and broke his leg. He had undergone multiple surgeries but couldn’t recover and has been bedridden since then.

As a single breadwinner for her family, Naseema has two little daughters and handicapped husband to look after. “Government relief or funds don’t reach to us because those associated with it take advantage of it,” she said, with her expressionless eyes. “I’ve to raise and educate my daughters and take care of my family. And that’s why I come out on the streets with a begging bowl.”

According to these women, they would not resort to begging, had administration and NGOs provided for them. They believe that at least some monthly allowance should be given to them so that they can make two ends meet. Moreover, they also emphasised on the fact that locals should also come forward to help their own people.

But in absence of community intervention, Shakeela Chauhan from Baniyar, Baramulla is forced to take a long route to arrive in the city centre, Lal Chowk, for begging. She along with her husband, a labourer by profession and in-laws are living in a rented house in Bemina area of Srinagar.

On 25 June 2021, Shakeela underwent surgery to remove kidney stones. But after a few months, she started having severe pain in her body. Doctors suggested her to get an ultrasound done. The test report detected a minor wound in her kidney.

Since then, she’s on medication to heal her internal injury.

“My husband is a labourer, sometimes he earns money and sometimes not. How can he pay for my medicines, he has a family to feed,” she said.

Unable to pay for her children’s school education, Shakeela has sent them to a Darul Uloom—a seminary in Srinagar—for Islamic teaching.

“Even if we would like to educate our children so they can help us to get out of poverty, we can’t afford to pay for that,” she said with a long face. “Our helpless situation gives us no choice other than begging!”

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