Apple orchard in Kashmir (Representative Image: Shutterstock)
Mohammad Rafiq, 30, couldn’t pluck over 40 percent of the apples in his orchard in South Kashmir’s Shopian. Rafiq and his family rushed to harvest as much of the crop as they could on October 22 after the horticulture department indicated in an advisory the imminent arrival of bad weather.
Horticulture is the biggest industry in Kashmir, with almost 2.2 million tonnes of apples exported from the Valley.
As predicted, untimely snow and rain damaged the apple crop and other plants across the southern parts of Kashmir on October 24, including Rafiq’s patch.
“We were helpless. The snow damaged the crop and trees in front of our eyes,” Rafiq told Moneycontrol. “It was impossible to speed up the apple harvest in just two days. But yes, we could have done it if non-local labourers had been available.”
There has been a spate of civilian killings in Kashmir this year. Over 200,000 non-local workers left the Valley from October 15 after the targeted killing of over five labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, a government official told Moneycontrol, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Among the victims were a street hawker in downtown Srinagar and a street vendor in another area of the city who was shot at point blank range. The killings weren’t restricted to Srinagar. Migrant workers in Kulgam district of south Kashmir also were attacked.
The exodus of non-local workers has affected many sectors in Kashmir that were on the cusp of a recovery following the change in Jammu & Kashmir’s status in August 2019 and two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From brick kilns to crop harvesting, non-local workers are employed in a range of jobs in the Union Territory.
“We will now encounter a shortage of approximately 10 lakh bricks per kiln this season,” said Zahoor Ahmad, president of the J&K Brick Manufacturers’ Association.
Ahmad said about 350 brick kilns operate in the Valley and typically employ 60,000 to 90,000 labourers from May to November.
“Each of these kilns operates with approximately 250 labourers. However, over 80 percent have left the Valley due to fear,” he said.
“This is a very hectic job that only a skilled labourer can do. The non-locals were skilled,” Mohammad Irshad, a brick kiln owner, told Moneycontrol. He had over 250 labourers working in his kiln, all of them non-locals.
A government official told Moneycontrol that developmental work has been hampered at many places due to the shortage of non-local workers.
The work affected includes those carried out by agencies such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, which builds roads connecting villages; the Economic Reconstruction Agency and the roads and buildings department, apart from cement factories and brick kilns – all largely dependent on skilled labourers from other parts of the country, the official said.
Kashmir hosts as many as 1 million migrant labourers in the formal and informal sectors through the year, except during the harsh winter months. Such workers are involved in activities such as construction and farming.
Over the years, non-local labourers have even taken over skilled work and now find employment as tailors, artisans, carpenters and industry hands. Additionally, they work as domestic helpers, security servicemen, salesmen, street hawkers and most of the labour workforce.
Working in the Valley is attractive for non-local labourers because it pays better. They’re paid as much as Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 per day compared with Rs 400-500 outside Kashmir. As a result, Kashmir’s economy has become quite dependent on this non-local influx every year. With the exodus of such workers, however, uncertainty prevails.
The migration of labourers will have a direct impact on infrastructure development, production capabilities, sales and production, said Shahid Kamili, president of the Federation Chamber of Industries, Kashmir.
The impact is already being felt at the Sopore fruit mandi, Asia’s second largest, which is largely deserted these days. The market usually hosts over 450 non-local customers every year till January. Now, after the recent attacks on non-locals, many regular customers are staying away.
Fayaz Ahmad Malik, president of the fruit association, said over 150 customers have left and he and his co-workers are reassuring the remaining customers by promising to keep them safe.
With the early advent of snow and the hurried exit of non-local labourers, the apple business is set for another poor season.
Many small businesses are likely to be affected. Online units operated by women had just started to recover from the effects of local restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic-related curbs.
There’s been a growth of women-run ventures such as online clothing businesses and boutiques in Kashmir and most of them relied on non-local tailors and artisans. Even local handicraft work like Tilla Dozi is now done by artisans from other states.
The local industry has come to rely on workers from outside. Over the years, non-locals have even taken over skilled work. Industrial units making cement, iron and plastic, and sectors such as cardboard corrugation, food processing, bakery and agro-products all employ non-local skilled workforces.
“Around 50-60 percent of units will go bankrupt,” according to Sarvar Ahmad, an industrialist at Lassipora Industrial Estate at Pulwama. “Kashmir does not have the kind of skilled workforce required to replace these non-locals. So, a shortage in labour will inevitably make matters worse for the manufacturing sector.”
For industrialists at Lassipora, non-local labourers who worked 18 hours a day were considered efficient and quick with equipment and prompt with troubleshooting, just what the nascent manufacturing sector in Kashmir needed.
With COVID-19 cases on the decline in the country, this period before the onset of winter was expected to be a phase of recovery for the economy in Kashmir. However, the exodus of workers has only led to uncertainty.
The May-November period is significant for the manufacturing and construction sectors in Kashmir. With the early exit of migrant workers, the chance to make a decent recovery appears to have been lost.
Additionally, the labour shortage is expected to increase input costs and this may accelerate inflation, which, at 7.39 percent in Kashmir, is already the highest in India.Auqib Javeed and Tooba Towfiq are Srinagar-based journalists and tweet as @AuqibJaveed and @tooba_tweets