Growing vegetables, storing rice: Lessons from Srinagar that has seen and survived many lockdowns

The people of Kashmir have learnt some important survival lessons from coping with decades of conflict and resulting restrictions. So much so that Kashmiris living elsewhere are now calling home for advice on how to cope with life under lockdown.

“I am having to do things today I have never done earlier.Waking up  at 6 am in winters and 5 in summers has long been my habit. First thing I would do is offer morning prayers, earlier in masjid, but now at home. A 20-minute physicial workout has been a part of my morning schedule but I have never had to rush to the market in the wee hours. But since the COVID-19 enforced lockdown in Srinagar, I rush to the market soon after my morning exercise to buy vegetables, bread, milk and grocery items as the market remains open for just two hours, 6 am to 8 am. When the clock ticks 8 am, one can spot police and paramilitary CRPF men dotting the roads to enforce lockdown. No one is allowed to venture out after 8 am barring emergency cases and health staff.” 

Just as Srinagar residents were hoping for a reprieve from eight months of strict political lockdown, Covid-19 sent them into another 40 days of lockdown. But residents of Srinagar have faced lockdowns and curfews so often these past couple of decades that they are probably better prepared than their counterparts elsewhere to manage the situation.

Things seemed well under control after the first COVID-19 positive case was reported in Srinagar on March 18th. But since then, the number of positive cases has surged to 278 till April 15th, with 78 from Srinagar alone and the possibility of more areas in the valley being declared as hot spots.

Ironically, the administration is aping the techniques used by agitators during past protests by digging roads to seal off areas declared COVID-19 red zones. According to deputy commissioner Srinagar Dr Shahid Iqbal Chaudhary, there are 15 red zones in Srinagar where only staff working on essential services are allowed to enter. During street agitations in the past, stone pelters would usually dig roads and erect barricades to prevent security forces from entering the area. Dr Chaudhary said a proper Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) will be followed in these areas for meeting emergency situations and ensuring supply of essentials to these areas. Lieutenant Governor Girish Chander Murmu’s advisor Baseer Ahmed Khan declared the whole of Srinagar’s densely packed old town as a red zone.

Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Srinagar, Dr Haseeb Mughal has appealed to people to cooperate with the police. “This is not a militancy issue,” said Dr Mughal. “We are fighting an invisible enemy.” Police have so far registered 400 FIRs and 300 people, including some religious clerics, have been arrested across Kashmir for violating prohibitory orders. “We need to understand the gravity of the situation. On Shab-e-Baraat eve (on April 08), we were forced to lodge four FIRs in Srinagar as some people including religious clerics insisted on praying in masjids.”

The people of Kashmir have learnt some important survival lessons from coping with decades of conflict and resulting restrictions. Especially on how to cope with home quarantine of the entire family for long periods, like since August last year. The word ‘lockdown’ had become part of the Kashmiris’ vocabulary long before the word became familiar to people in the rest of India. So much so that Kashmiris living elsewhere have been calling home for advice on how to cope with life under lockdown.

But unlike in the past, Kashmiris agreed with the Prime Minister that this lockdown was necessary, given the virility of the novel coronavirus. In fact, Srinagar took the lead in enforcing social distancing and other screening and testing measures three days before the 21-day curfew began on March 24th.

The J&K government has got down to implementing the union home ministry’s latest guidelines. The Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) said that it will be spraying 50,000 litres of chemical decontamination mixture on a daily basis to sanitise various public places and institutions. Commissioner SMC, Gazanfar Ali said that the Corporation has pressed into service its mechanised decontamination vehicles and special teams of workers for sanitisation and cleanliness of public places . “About 240 vehicles including tippers, loaders, compactors, dumpers and other vehicles have been put into service,” he said.

An lonely, empty Shikara parked in the Dal Lake. Pic Umar Ganie.

Learning from the past

Prolonged lockdowns lasting several months started in Kashmir in 2008 due to an agitation against the allotment of land to Amarnath Shrine Board by the then PDP-Congress government, which resulted in the killing of 70 civilians. A year later, life was again disrupted by a shutdown, by separatists this time, against the rape and murder of two women in Shopian. Another agitation the following summer over the killing of three civilians by the Army in a fake encounter at Machil near the Line of Control (LoC) resulted in the death of 120 people.

In July 2016, the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani sparked a five-month-long uprising in which 110 civilians were killed and scores were blinded by pellets. Finally, in 2019 August, came the lockdown, which has not yet been lifted, following abrogation of Article 370 and making J&K a union territory.

But even though five lakh people were rendered jobless by the lockdown, nobody died of hunger, as the lessons learned during all the earlier lockdowns saved the day for most valley residents. A little-known fact is that Kashmir has a well organised, yet unrecognised, group of charity organisations which helps people in need. Most of these charities are linked to mosques, but some work independently.

While the world cribs about the difficulties caused by the lockdown, Kashmiris have faced it without complaint. The learnings from the past has for sure honed the Kashmiris’ survival instincts. But at the cost of a host of mental health issues like depression and PTSD afflicting many people. These mental pressures have taken a toll on peoples’ immunity and increased their vulnerability to diabetes, hormonal disorders and blood pressure. COVID-19 can be deadly for such patients, doctors warn.

Long evolved traditions to cope with the region’s harsh winters have also helped Kashmiri’s cope with difficult circumstances. For instance, the tradition of having two kitchens, one on the ground floor and another, a makeshift one, in the attic during peak winters when over six feet of snow is the norm. Though the tradition of having two kitchens is no longer followed, the habit of stocking supplies for prolonged periods is still practiced by most.

“We have learned to survive and flourish despite back to back lockdowns,” said Irshad Ahmed, 45, a resident of Chanapora area of Srinagar. “We have learned and transferred our knowledge of survival to our younger generation. During the present lockdown, which no doubt is different from the previous ones, the old learnings and experiences have worked for us”.

Noted poet and historian Zareef Ahmed Zareef, who’s in his 70s, said he had heard that during his father’s childhood, Kashmiris used to store rice in earthen tanks. Before 1947, for instance, people used to hoard vegetables in trenches in summers for use in winters. “Kashmir produced rice till 1960 and people used to stock it in large earthen ware containers for months,’’ remembers Zareef. “Now we import rice from Punjab and elsewhere. And the earthenware containers have been replaced by tin cans. Most people in Kashmir, except Srinagar, produce vegetables in their homes. This has sustained us in the past and is helping us at this crucial juncture too.”

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