Targeted by Gunmen, Migrants Flee South Kashmir, Leaving Unpicked Apple Crop Behind

While they fear for their safety, for non-locals, going back is equally painful as earnings from Kashmir help provide a decent life to families back home.

Shopian (Jammu and Kashmir): Less than a week after unidentified gunmen shot dead five non-local labourers from West Bengal in Katrasu village of south Kashmir’s Kulgam, it takes lots of efforts to find a non-native in the area. They have all left. After an hour’s search, a local journalist helped trace Abrahim, 45, a contractor from Bihar. Abrahim, who has spent 20 years of his life in Kashmir arranging labourers for locals, sat quietly in his small, single room rented accommodation in Kulgam town. He has not been out of his room much since the killings. Normally, at this time of the year when the apple picking season is at its peak, Abrahim would have 15 people from his village with him in Kashmir. “Now I am all alone,” he said, the fear audible in his voice.

They have all left after the recent attack in Katrusu. “I didn’t stop them as I don’t want to put their lives at risk,” said Abrahim. “This time the situation is entirely different in Kashmir.”

Abrahim is among the handful of non-local workers left in entire Kulgam. “If anything happens again, I too will leave,” he said.

But for non-locals like him, going back is equally painful as earnings from Kashmir help them provide a decent life to their families back home.

In 1982, when 17-year-old Bismillah Khan first came to Kashmir from Bihar, he had no idea he would stay so long. He rented a small shop in Kulgam’s main market where he repaired tyres. His earnings helped him save enough to get married to a girl from his home town.

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Despite the eruption of armed militancy a few years later in Kashmir, Khan stayed put with his wife and three daughters. “Nobody has ever harmed me even during the peak years of militancy,” said Khan. “I did my work without disruption all these years. But this time, it is a completely different situation.”

The first sign of change Khan saw was in July 2016, when Kashmir erupted in protests over the killing of Burhan Wani, a popular militant commander.

“His (Burhan’s) killing changed Kashmir like never before,” feels Khan. “I sent my daughters back home, sensing the change in mood among the locals.”

Khan’s daughters were enrolled in a government-run school in Kulgam. Now they live with their mother in Bihar. Since then, Khan would visit his home twice a year to spend time with his family.

On August 2, after the government of India issued an advisory asking tourists and Amarnath pilgrims to leave Kashmir immediately, most non-locals packed their bags and left. “I didn’t leave as I knew I would not be harmed. I have been here through worst years of militancy,” said Khan.

But after the killings in nearby Katrasu village, Khan is skeptical about his prospects. “We are now seen as a threat by Kashmiris, which was never the case earlier,” he said.

On August 5, after Kashmir was locked down with virtually no contact with the outside world, Union home minister Amit Shah announced the reading of Article 370. He also stripped Kashmir of its statehood. The days that followed saw Kashmir seethe with anger. As a continuing mark of protest, all schools, business establishments and trade remain virtually shut across the Valley. Even normal economical activity like the picking of apples became a bone of contention and has been politicised.

For the first few weeks, Tawseef Ahmad, 38, a construction worker from Malda in West Bengal, decided to wait for the situation to normalise. He was staying with five other labourers from his village in rented accommodation in Zainapora village of Shopian. However, when he realised that the situation now was unlike other periods of unrest he had witnessed in his ten-year stay in Kashmir, he decided to leave. He and his colleagues managed to reach Srinagar and took a cab to Jammu from where he boarded a train to West Bengal.

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“I was planning to come back when I learned about the attack in Kulgam,” said Tawseef, who is struggling to feed his family back home. “Every male member in my family was working in Kashmir as it paid well. I don’t know how we will manage if the situation in Kashmir remains tense for long.”

Tawseef and his relatives now work on their small piece of farmland in an effort to make ends meet. “But it is not sufficient to feed a large family of 25 members,” Tawseef told this reporter over the phone from West Bengal.

In the past ten years, he has mentored a number of youngsters from his village and helped them earn a decent living in Kashmir.

“Most of them rely on my judgment to return to Kashmir. But this time I am not sure myself. How can I put anyone’s life in danger,” said Tawseef.

Sellers prepare apple boxes in Pattan town of Kashmir Photo: PTI

The void

Six back-to-back attacks on non-locals in a span of just two weeks have caused a labour crisis for south Kashmir at the peak of the apple picking season.

Apple orchardist Abdul Hameed, 36, a resident of DK Pora village in Shopian, managed ten labourers from Bihar to pick and pack his crop. On the day the Kulgam attack took place, he had five non-local traders visiting his orchards.

“A day after the attack, the labourers and traders all left,” said Hameed. “Now I have to convince local labourers to get the work done.”

But there are not enough local labourers willing to manage this year’s bumper crop. And those who are ready to work demand high wages in the absence of non-local labourers.

After days of search, Hameed managed to get two Anantnag based labourers to work on his land. “But they have no experience of working on an apple orchard,” he said with disappointment. “They lack the expertise apple picking requires.”

In Hameed’s village, Shabir Ahmad, 35, and his friend Zameer Ahmad, 37, too managed to host traders from outside when the killings of truckers and traders began. “They all left the very next day when they learned about an attack on a trucker in a nearby village,” said Shabir, whose five labourers left, telling him they would return only after Kashmir is “normal”.

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Shabir’s friend Zameer, who owns a truck, used to ferry his produce to different Indian states and sell to traders there till last season. But loading a truck in such a situation is not possible now. “It is dangerous to even load fruit in trucks after a number of trucks were set on fire recently,” said Zameer.

After the attack on truckers, the local police has advised traders to load their produce at a secure point. “We have to bring our fruit in small vehicles and then load them in trucks at a secure facility. It is hectic and dangerous,” said Zameer.

Because of the labour crisis, rates have already skyrocketed in Shopian and other areas.  “Earlier it was Rs 500 a day for picking and packing fruit. Now we have to pay Rs 800 for the same work,” said Mohammad Ashraf Wani, president of the Fruit Growers and Dealers Association, Shopian. “Even at this price, there are not enough labourers available locally.”

Similarly, for transporting apples from Kashmir to outside markets, the rate per apple box was Rs 90 in the last season. “Now it is Rs 170 per box,” said Wani.

Shopian’s fruit mandi is the second biggest in Kashmir after Sopore. It has been shut since August 5. Last year, more than 200 apple laden trucks would leave Shopian Mandi every day. “Now just 20 trucks manage to leave from Shopian if things are normal,” said Wani.

Umar Khurshid is a Srinagar-based reporter.