Freeze Frame: Growing Tribe of Child Kangri-Sellers in Kashmir

A girl child polishing twigs for Kangri. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

A juvenile Kangri seller’s street struggle might’ve lately activated the community against the child labour, but the menace is pervasive and awaits a proactive community response.

By Saima Shakeel

IN a sleepy Budgam hamlet’s twig field strewn with haystacks and mud boilers, little Iqra arrives holding hem of her mother’s soiled pheran.

Her outing looks like a playful routine before the eight-year-old gets sucked into Kashmir’s exploitative labour venture on the brink of closure due to miserable market.

Iqra, whose name means study, is working in the field at the cost of her classes.

The depravity back home has made her another earning hand. Grown beyond her age, she says her small helping hand is a little hope for her fraught family.

Earning in the age of learning. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

Iqra isn’t alone. There’s Saima, Kousar and Beenish — all part of the ongoing season of Kangri-making in Kashmir.

Following their elders’ footsteps, these barely preteen girls wake up early, finish home errands, attend school and come back to complete their real homework at home.

“We strike balance by working extra hours on our studies at home in the evening,” Beenish, a girl with shy, smoke-smeared face, says. “It’s hard but it’s important for our survival.”

The routine grind. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

Most of these kids who should’ve been fully engaged in learning and playful activities are mainly slogging for the sake of their families.

Their stark reality as shown by the twig fields of Budgam makes their case quite worrying.

The family pathos is a common pattern in these child labour chronicles of Kashmir.

The tiny hands behind warmth. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

Child labour, by definition, is a physical work separating children from their childhood, education, growth and normal development.

Despite strict laws prohibiting this menace, over one lakh child labours of Jammu and Kashmir are silently serving sectors like handcraft, agriculture and automobile workshops.

Many of them are also working as domestic help, vendors and bus conductors.

Some of these kids can be seen making rounds of urban marketplaces and malls selling socks and handkerchiefs.

Pausing for a pose. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

At the city outskirts, little Muskan is helping her father selling corns on street. She runs here and there to deliver the delicacy. This physical toil leaves her breathless, but she’s duty-bound to market her family produce.

“This is for our family survival,” she replies when asked about her street engagement. “I come here after attending my school. My father needs me here.”

Hands that serve. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

But while the corn-seller’s little daughter plays his salesperson, some urban automobile workshops are filled with young Imtiyazs.

The barely ten boy from Qamarwari area of Srinagar was cleaning spare parts of a car with black automobile oil in a container at a city garage.

He arrives early at work and leaves at sundown. After putting nearly 9 hours of work, he barely makes Rs 300 a day.

“This income hardly suffices my family needs, but I’m happy that it’s putting food on our table,” Imtiyaz says. “It’s much better than begging.”

The child glitch-fixer. KO Photo by Abid Bhat

With the resolve to fight for their families, these child labourers can be seen working in different labour markets.

They treat their work as some kind of moral duty for their families, but the fact that it’s coming at the cost of their normal upbringing and classroom activities makes it a clear violation.

The daily work. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

As per the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 152 million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labour worldwide.

Boys and girls, reports say, are equally involved in child labour, with girls far more likely to be involved in domestic work. “Poverty is the biggest cause of child labour in India,” UNICEF states.

The menace is equally being multiplied by the absence of educational infrastructure and a lack of awareness in Kashmir countryside.

The workshop apprentice. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

J&K, as per Kailash Satyarthi Children Population report, will have 64.26 thousand projected child labour population in 5-14 years age group by 2025.

In fact, the foundation has ranked J&K 3rd in terms of child labour which gives enough indication about the prevailing grim scenario.

Gem in junk. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

Be it the twig fields of Budgam or the automobile workshops of Srinagar, observers say, the child labour is a stark reality of Kashmir and needs a collective community response.

“We need to evolve a scholarship for these poor children,” says Sameer Ali, a social activist part of many child-welfare initiatives in Srinagar. “At the same time, we need to sponsor skill program for their family members so that they will earn their living with dignity.”

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