63-year-old Ghulam Mohammad Akhoon leaves his home in Zoonimar, Srinagar everyday at around 8 in the morning to sell vegetables in different parts of the city, so that he can feed his family of seven members comprised of his aged mother, his wife, three daughters and a teenage son. He is the only earning member of his family, apart from his elder daughter who makes a meagre amount sewing clothes.
The chief breadwinner himself makes around 200 to 300 rupees a day from the sale of vegetables. He is always in a state of confusion over whether to move out or not on tense days in Srinagar, but his financial condition compels him to do so almost every time. He cannot afford to lose a day’s worth of earnings. But the past few weeks have created grave issues for people like him, as tension continues to grow in the valley and conflict brews in the region.
“I am still venturing out on business, but the situation is so scary here in Kashmir. It looks very bad, but for a poor man like me, I cannot afford to sit at home for days together. The political atmosphere here won’t let citizens breathe freely,” Akhoon says.
Indo-Pak tension that spiked following the Pulwama terror attack, culminating in the air strikes in Balakot and the ever-looming spectre of armed conflict, has put Kashmir on the edge yet again. Adding to the tension is talk of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. Akhoon fears that in case these go through, Kashmir will witness another deadly summer: “The bullets may kill people on roads but there will be people like me who will die inside their homes.”
Indeed, like Akhoon, there are many sections of people in the city whose income depend on daily labouring. “We don’t want war, we want a peaceful solution but unfortunately no one else wants that and every single day, a commoner dies either in encounters or in cross fire,” he rues.
Recalling the unrest of 2016, Akhoon says that for months after Burhan Wani was killed on June 8th, Kashmir simmered. On September 11th his mother fell ill. “I had no money to buy medicines, nor was I able to move her for treatment as there was heavy tear gas shelling all around. Somehow, my brother-in-law who drives an auto-rickshaw managed to take her to the hospital. On that day, if we had been unable to hospitalize her, she would have died at home without any treatment.This is the reality of violence, it affects us all, everyday,” says Akhoon.
Akhoon belongs to a ‘zameendaar’ (farming) family but his wish for his children was to give them good education so that they could become ‘officers’ Sadly, the situation in Kashmir is far from conducive. It neither lets children get educated nor lets them serve their people for good. “Here, the educated ones take up arms and are resting in graveyards, which is so painful,” says Akhoon, who feels that the indifferent attitude of Indian politicians has sown more seeds of hatred and isolation in the hearts of Kashmiri youth.
Clouding all else that matters
From 2008, Kashmir has witnessed continual cycles of death and destruction and the loss — both human and economic — has been immeasurable. From school shutdowns to shutting down of business establishments to loss of livelihoods in the informal sectors, life in the city has taken a huge hit. Development projects and civic issues, which the common man faces everyday, have been overshadowed by unabated violence.
Betterment of government schools and education, environmental degradation, employment creation, women’s issues or infrastructural gaps never get the attention that is due, with the conflict overriding all else in Kashmir.
Take the case of what was supposed to be Kashmir valley’s longest flyover upon completion — from Jehangir Chowk to Rambagh. Announced in 2009, the construction on the flyover, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) at an estimated cost of Rs 359 crore, began in 2013, but the project has missed several deadlines and is far from completion. The government and executing agencies blame the situation in the valley or weather conditions for not meeting deadlines.
Several other road projects — such as TRC road link, Qamarwari-Shalteng road stretch and Dalgate-Hazratbal road stretch — are yet to be completed, despite many deadlines having passed by.
When uncertainty grips daily life
Saba Firdous, a private teacher in the Srinagar-Rajouri Kadal area said, “Development and conflict cannot go hand in hand. Development will come only when there is peace.” Stating that every day in Kashmir is volatile and the situation can change completely in a matter of hours, Firdous pointed out that it is difficult to predict how things will turn out this year.
Firdous earns Rs 4500 a month at her job in a local private school, despite being highly qualified with a degree in computer sciences. “Because of violence all year round, there are hardly any opportunities. Even people with advanced degrees are bound to work on meagre salaries, as there are no alternatives.”
In 2016, schools in the city remained closed for almost eight months; not only did the students suffer academically, even employees and teachers were deeply affected. “I didn’t get any pay for those eight months and one cannot ask for payment in such situations.You have to compromise with the situation, but where families are dependent on one’s salary, the misery of such circumstances is deep,” Firdous lamented. “We don’t want to lose more academic sessions or our earnings, but a lot depends on how things turn out from here,” she said about the current situation.
Akhoon and Firdous are just two among thousands who are struggling to cope with the times, but are deeply worried that if the situation turns worse, it will be the common Kashmiri on the street who will be worst hit. “No one in Kashmir wants another bloody summer, we already have lost so many young people. If people think violence is unavoidable, I tell them to look at the issue through a poor man’s eyes,” he says.
Tension may ease out between India and Pakistan for some time, but Kashmir still remains a core issue that needs resolution and closure. Till then, there is little hope for deliverance among the common man.