Migrant labourers in the valley

By K.N. Pandita

Hundreds of non-state subject labourers have left the valley following the threatening statement of Hurriyat (G) leader Ali Shah Geelani. Latest figures of departed labourers has come to more than a thousand mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

These labourers are poor people from these states and have been coming to Kashmir for many years for manual labour in construction projects and of late on agriculture farms. Some of them would return to their places during harsh winter months but most of them had been staying on during winter as they were able to find work and earn bread for their families. Many of these workers are often accompanied by their families also.

For many years number of labour force of locals had been showing a downward trend in the valley. There are many reasons for that. Free education up to post graduate level, now in vogue for five decades, has contributed enormously to the growth of literacy rate among the people of the valley. During past one decade and a half when militancy has been rampant, the state government has provided jobs and self employment opportunities to nearly a million Kashmiri youth. During the same period there has been handsome flow of money from right or wrong source in the valley raising the standard of living of the people so as to make them foremost in terms of average income per capita in the country. Banking facilities and easy loans have also contributed a good deal in improving the living standards and in transforming the labour class into office going force.

All these factors have combined to push the traditional labour force out of the field. When youth are able to grab government jobs, big or small, and all the facilities of raising funds for business, they no more need to work in the fields or at construction sites. The non-state subjects coming to Kashmir for several years have been filling the vacuum thus created. It explains the sudden spurt in the labour migration process.

These migratory labourers coming in large numbers to Kashmir valley for so many years have never caught the attention of the government authorities or local political parties and organizations except only casually when the armed insurgents targeted them a couple of times in the past. Even their home governments never seriously raised their issue with the J&K government. What is more, the leftist parties in the country who claim to be the guardians of the interests of labourers and working groups never spoke a word about the rights of migratory labourers to Kashmir valley, especially their basic human rights like the right to life and right to health and education.

These people fall into the category of migratory labourers. The Charter of UN Human Rights has clearly and unequivocally set forth their rights to life, property, health, educating, environment and development. Local and concurred governments are enjoined to honour their commitment to the UN to provide the migratory labourers these rights without any grudge. The labour laws falling under State List also stipulate that conditions are created in which the migratory labourers feel secure and are remunerated adequately for their labour.

In the case of the J&K State, it is unfortunate that no step has been taken at any level to conduct a survey of the non – state subject labourers pouring into the valley and taking to manual jobs, their wage structures, living conditions, employer – employee relations and much more. We don’t know whether the Union Ministry of Labour has even focused its attention on the subject at any time and whether they have collected any dependable data that would prompt researchers and academics conduct studies on them. Sundry information that occasionally trickles in, speaks of very hard life of these migratory labourers. Their living conditions are said to be appalling and medical facilities are absent. Many of them live in clusters of mud huts with dismal sanitary conditions. Those who have their kids with them, have no alternative but to carry them to their workplaces and make them roll in dust and dirt all the day while their parents are working as daily wagers on sites. It has also been reported that many contractors retract on their contracts conditions and pay the labourers less than what has been contracted. They know that the labourers have no political support or clout to carry their complaints to and thus can be exploited very easily.

The threat that has come from a conservative firebrand and has forced the labourers to run away for life is a clear proof of continued violence in the valley and government’s inability to provide them security of life. A more disheartening thing is that scores of valley – based NGOs who are orchestrating the cases, true or false, of violation of human rights of the people have never spoken a word about the human rights of these labourers. No NGO group has ever visited their mud huts and asked them how they live the chores of daily life.

At the same time, responsibility descends on the respective governments of the states from where the labour force comes to the valley. These are Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh and a sprinkling from Rajasthan. The labourers are the citizens of their state and they have the responsibility of enquiring about the living conditions of their citizens when working in another state. Even, as already indicated, the Union Ministry of Labour, too, has to share its responsibility. Now if the threats from a particular dissident leader are allowed to affect the daily bread of hundreds of thousands of people in one state, the bad practice can be repeated in the case of another state. It would lead to a chaotic situation and violate all norms of harmonious inter-state relations. Such an unsavoury thing should never be allowed to happen. As such the case of non – state labourers in Kashmir valley is a matter of deep concern and should be addressed without loss of time. Do the intransigent leaders want to lower an iron curtain over Kashmir and then live in isolation?

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