Not quite a cash cow

This story first appeared on PARI on 1 June 2017.

Appasaheb Kothule, 45, wants to sell two of his bulls. He can’t do that. Qaleem Qureshi, 28, wishes he could buy bulls. But he, too, cannot.

Kothule has been travelling to various bazaars for over a month. He has attended all the weekly markets held around Devgaon, his village, roughly 40 kilometres from Aurangabad city, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Today, he has arrived in Adul, where villagers fill the marketplace every Tuesday. “My son is getting married and I need some money,” he says, a white handkerchief wrapped around his forehead. “Nobody is willing to pay more than 10,000 rupees for the pair. I should get at least Rs.15,000 for them.”

Meanwhile, Qaleem Qureshi sits idle at his beef shop in Aurangabad’s Sillakhana area, wondering how to resurrect his dwindling trade. “I used to do business of 20,000 rupees a day [with earnings ranging from Rs.70-80,000 a month],” he says. “Over the past two years, it has declined to a fourth of that.”

‘I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls to various bazaars,’ says Appasaheb Kothule of Devgaon; other farmers too are spending sums they cannot afford

The beef ban in the state is a little over two years old. By the time Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 2014, the agrarian crisis had deepened under the previous Congress and Nationalist Congress Party regimes.  A lethal combination of rising input costs, fluctuating rates for crops, water mismanagement and other factors had set in motion widespread distress and tens of thousands of farm suicides in the state. Fadnavis managed to intensify the crisis by extending the prohibition of cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks in March 2015.

The bovine is central to the rural economy and the ban has had a direct impact on businesses that depend on cattle. It has equally impacted farmers who, for decades, used the animals as insurance – they traded their livestock to raise instant capital for marriages, medicines, or an upcoming cropping season.

Kothule, who has five acres of farmland where he cultivates cotton and wheat, says his financial calculations have been hit by the ban. “These two bulls are only four years old,” he says, pointing to his tethered animals. “Any farmer would have swiftly bought them for 25,000 rupees a few years ago. Bulls can be used on farmlands until they are 10.”

But now farmers are reluctant to buy cattle even though the prices have plummeted, knowing it will be difficult to get rid of them later. “I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls from my home to various bazaars,” says Kothule. “Adul is four kilometres away, so I walked with my bovines today. Other weekly bazaars are in a 25-kilometres radius, so I have to hire a bullock cart. I already have a debt burden. I need to sell these bulls.”

As we talk, Kothule keeps a desperate eye out for buyers. He has reached the market at 9 a.m., it is now 1 p.m., and extremely hot. “I have not even had water since I reached,” he says. “I cannot leave the bulls alone even for five minutes for fear of missing out on a customer.”

Around him in the bustling maidan, with temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, various farmers are trying everything possible to crack a deal. Janardan Geete, 65, from Wakulni, 15 kilometres from Adul, is getting the horns of his robust bullocks sharpened to make them look more attractive. Bhandas Jadhav, with his sharpening instrument, will charge Rs. 200 per animal. “I had bought them for 65,000 rupees,” Geete says. “I will be happy to settle for 40,000.”

Kothule says the growing water shortage in Marathwada and rising fodder costs have made it more difficult to maintain livestock. Added to this is a lack of cow shelters. When Fadnavis imposed the beef ban, he promised to start shelters where farmers could donate their cattle instead of being forced to bear the costs of maintaining animals that could no longer work on their farms. But the shelter have not materialised, dealing the farmers a double blow – they cannot raise money by selling their livestock and are stuck with the animals even after they become unproductive.

“How can we maintain our old livestock when we cannot even properly provide for our children?” asks Kothule. “We spend 1,000 rupees per week on each animal’s water and fodder.”

Many others across the rural economic spectrum have been hit by this one amendment in the law – the beef ban. Dalit leather workers, transporters, meat traders, those who make medicines from bones, have all been hit hard.

Around 300,000 bulls were slaughtered each year in Maharashtra prior to the ban. Now, the slaughterhouses are idle and entire communities in economic distress. At Sillakhana, which hosts close to 10,000 Qureshis – a community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle traders – the impact is palpable. Qaleem has had to sack a few of his staff. “I too have a family to feed,” he says. “What else could I do?”

Anees Qureshi, 41, a loader in Sillakhana, says, “I used to make at least 500 rupees a day. Now I do odd jobs. The income is not guaranteed. There are days when I have no work.”

Business before the beef ban was already hit by the growing agrarian crisis – people from the villages have been migrating in greater numbers looking for work. This has meant a substantial drop in the local consumption of beef, says Qaleem. But his shop, owned by the family since Qaleem’s great grandfather’s time, is all he has. “Our community is not very well-educated [and cannot easily shift to other work],” he says. “We sell buffalo meat now. But people do not like it as much and the competition with other meat products is stiff.”

Beef has formed a major part of the diet of the Qureshis, as well as various other communities, including the Dalits – it is a relatively cheap source of protein. “Replacing beef with chicken or mutton means spending thrice the amount,” says Qaleem.

Dyandeo Gore (right) hopes to sell the last of his seven bulls before returning home to Daygavan village

At the bazaar in Adul, Geete, who was sharpening the horns of his cattle, is one of few to go home smiling after a farmer agrees to buy his animals. Dyandeo Gore looks at him with envy.

Gore has walked seven kilometres to Adul with his bull: the last of seven, which he sold over the years. His debt of around Rs.6 lakhs has magnified in five years. By selling his last bull, he hopes to raise money ahead of the cropping season. “Nature does not support us. The government does not support us,” he says. “Wealthy businessmen do not commit suicide. Debt-ridden farmers like me do. It is a daily misery. I do not know of a single farmer who wants his son to be a farmer.”

At the age of 60, Gore is wandering in the heat from market to market on foot with his bovine, because he cannot afford any transportation. “If I fail to sell him today, I will go to another bazaar on Thursday,” he says. “How far is that?” I ask him. “Thirty kilometres,” he says.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

Never a ‘dal’ moment

This story first appeared on PARI on 12 May 2017.

Vitthal Chavan has spent the last two months waiting for a call. On February 28, he went to the NAFED centre in Osmanabad’s Kalamb taluka to register his nine quintals of tur – so that the government would then purchase it from him. But the official only wrote his name and number in a notebook and told him, “You will get a call.”

“I have called them every alternate day, visited the centre 4-5 times since February 28,” he says, sitting across the official’s table at the centre on a steaming morning in early May. Vitthal has a nine-acre farm in Pangaon, and has once again travelled 25 kilometres to reach Kalamb only to ask if his tur (pigeon pea, a lentil) will be procured.  Several other farmers with similar problems look on. “They kept saying the storage is full or enough gunny bags were not available. Now the deadline is gone and I do not have any evidence of my registration.”

Because of a bumper crop of tur last year, around mid-December 2016 the Maharashtra government set up National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) centres in various districts and talukas to ensure that  the traders who purchase produce from farmers do not rob them by negotiating throwaway prices for the abundant dal.

Farmers wait outside the NAFED centre in Kalamb: hoping the government keeps its promise of buying every bit of tur

But the NAFED centres were grossly unprepared. The official at the Kalamb centre does not deny this. He is engaged in a discussion with S.C. Chavan, secretary of the Agriculture Produce Market Committee in Kalamb. “We are preparing a report and sending it to the government,” says Chavan. “There are several farmers who had brought their tur before the deadline, but we could not accept it because of certain problems. The government will respond and we will act accordingly.”

The deadline of the NAFED centres was extended thrice – to March 15, March 31 and April 22, after cabinet minister (cooperatives, textiles and marketing) Subhash Deshmukh promised the state would buy every bit of tur. This was a relief for farmers who had stacked the dal in their homes and were struggling to get it registered.

But after April 22, the Maharashtra government refused to buy tur from farmers, and said the deadline will not be further extended. Only the officially-registered tur that the farmers had dropped off at centres before April 22 would be accepted by the government.

Vitthal Chavan’s stock was not in among this lot, though he – like many other farmers – had brought his tur to the centre ahead of the deadline. But with only an informal notation by the official, Vitthal has no evidence in hand that he came to the centre in time. “How do I trust them?” he anxiously asks. “What if they just tear out the page where my name is written? It has been months since I harvested the crop. The stock is worth 45,000 rupees but it is lying at my house. If they do not buy it, I will have to sell it at a throwaway price [of even as low a Rs. 1,000 a quintal].  The tur can deteriorate once the monsoon begins.”

Last year, after several years, farmers in Marathwada moved away from the water guzzling sugarcane and instead sowed tur, a traditional food crop. They shifted because drought was much more acute in 2016 than in previous years. And they got a bumper crop – 20 lakh metric tonnes (across the state), says Subhash Deshmukh, compared to 4.4 lakh metric tonnes in 2015.

The shift away from sugarcane to a sustainable food crop could have, over time, helped conserve water. However, the government’s handling of the crop is likely to make tur unattractive in the market for at least a year.

The wholesale market price for tur in Maharashtra was around Rs. 10,000 quintal in 2014-15, which dropped in anticipation of a good crop. To the government’s credit, had it not initiated the NAFED centres and fixed the minimum support price [MSP, decided by the state to support farmers] at Rs. 5,050, the market cost would have plummeted below Rs. 3,000 per quintal following the bumper crop.

But oddly, even when the impending quantity of production had become clear, the Indian government imported 57 lakh tonnes of tur from other countries at Rs. 10,114 rupees per quintal – as it does every year in varying quantities.

The state, however, said in a GR (government resolution) that it has purchased more than the NAFED mandated 25% of the produce of Maharashtra farmers. By April, four lakh metric tonnes of tur has been already purchased, says Deshmukh, and another 1 lakh metric tonnes has been registered for procurement. “We have followed the due procedure to ensure the farmers get their dues,” he says.

But the official production figure of 20 lakh metric tonnes is conservative. Tur is often sowed as an interior crop – within two strands of sugarcane or other crops. It does not require much water, is harvested in about four months and is regarded as a bit of a bonus. Which is why many farmers only mention the main crop on their land documents. For the number of hectares under tur, the government  only calculates the production of farmers who have stated tur on their papers. Reports indicate at least three times of what is registered this year is still languishing with farmers.

Meghnath Shelke, 58, a farmer from Dhanora village in Osmanabad, failed to get his six quintals of tur registered in spite of visiting the NAFED centre several times. “Once they sent me back because they did not have a weighing machine, then they said if I leave my stock here, it could be stolen and the centre would not be responsible for it,” he says, and points to six gunny bags of tur piled up in a tiny room of his house. “For almost a month, the centre was shut. It never remained consistently open.”

Besides tur, Shelke cultivates soybean and cotton on his eight acres. Every time he was sent back, he had to come home 10 kilometres from the NAFED centre carrying the six quintals. “I have spent hundreds of rupees merely on the commute [by tempo],” he says. “The government had promised to buy every bit of tur. If the state does not live up to its promise, it will be a severe setback for us as we have to invest in preparations for the kharif season.”

Vitthal Chavan, a farmer from Pangaon: still waiting for a call from the NAFED centre 

Vitthal, in the meantime, has given up and decided to head back to Pangaon in the afternoon. “If the cropping season fails, we die. If it is a resounding success, we still die,” he says. Already in debt and with a cropping season looming ahead, the timing of the tur crisis has been especially hard on the farmers of Maharashtra.

And after spending almost half a day at the NAFED centre, Vitthal still does not know if his tur will be accepted. As he leaves, he asks again when he should follow up.  “You will get a call,” they tell him.

Postscript: At the time of publication, the government of Maharashtra has extended the deadline to May 31. That does not reverse the harassment the farmers have already gone through, nor does it assure a resolution to their problem in any lasting way.

The NAFED centre in Kalamb, Vitthal Chavan says, is now shut and his tur isn’t being procured. When  Chavan again phoned the official, he didn’t get any specific answer.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

UP Election 2017: In Amethi, millennial voters are looking beyond Rahul Gandhi

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26th Feb 2017.

The youngsters in Amethi, just like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are expressive, opinionated and politically alive. One does not have to ask obviously intrusive questions to gauge their mood. Once the interaction begins, they decide the flow and most of the questions in your scribbling pad are covered without your asking them. However, during a good 20-minute conversation with dozens of millennial voters, in which they spoke of pertinent election issues and influential leaders, there was one point they had to be reminded to touch upon: Rahul Gandhi.

Almost all of them then responded with a wry smile and said, “The less said about him, the better.”

Indicative of the mood in the rest of the country, in his own Lok Sabha Constituency of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is not even considered important enough to be criticised or mentioned. It is by and large applicable to the Congress too, where the electorate hardly mentions the grand old party as a factor in Uttar Pradesh.

And rightly so. A pocket borough of the Gandhis, Amethi is a dustbowl (to put it leniently), where millennial voters are still facing the problems they have grown up with.

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Shri Sai Shivram Girls Education College in Gauriganj constituency of Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet. “We have to go into the farm fields,” she rued. “It is even more dangerous for girls, because the security situation for women is not great here either. The toilets have been built for the well-off, influential people. But our demands fall on deaf ears.”

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet.

The complaints regarding lack of sanitation facilities are not limited to the remote villages, but are heard even up to the town. Ranjit Rao, 21, said even in his village of Banvaripur, which is right on the outskirts of the town Amethi, they do not have a toilet.

While there are no two opinions about the fact that Amethi is one the least developed VIP constituencies, and is even worse than Rae Bareli, a report published by Livemint in 2014 showed that it did not fare well even when compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh, which lags behind in the juxtaposition with the rest of India. The report highlighted 12 socio-economic indicators on which Amethi fared worse than the state, which included important aspects like access to tap water, electricity, toilet, LPG, literacy and so on.

Add to that the crisis of unemployment faced by the youth, and Amethi becomes a perfect recipe for students to think of migration. Hardly anyone expressed the desire to stay put, saying they do not think the place would improve anytime soon. “If it had to happen, it would have happened by now,” said Ranjit, who is currently teaching primary school students to make a living, while preparing to apply for the job of Uttar Pradesh police. “If I do not get it, I will migrate to Delhi, where my father works in a private company.”

Ranjit will migrate to Delhi is his application to the UP Police does not work out.

Ranjit further complained the vacancies in the police force of UP go mostly to the constituencies where SP is strong. “They consider Class 12 marks for the job,” he said. “In Mainpuri, Etawah, Pratapgarh etc, students end up fudging their marksheets and get through, which is why Amethi lags behind.”

Whether the allegations are true or not, it conveys the hapless youngster’s plight in attempting to make a decent living. The incompetence of Rahul Gandhi as an MP, and the inability of the previous state governments to develop Amethi, has been cashed in by Narendra Modi, who continues to wield his popularity over the electorate. The critics and experts have dissected all the angles of demonetisation to prove it was an ill-thought, poorly executed scheme that only disturbed the lives of millions while achieving little, but it hardly matters to the electorate going to polls. The fact is, an economic disaster has proved to be a political masterstroke.

In Poonam’s remote village of Ultagadha, where lush green farmlands and fragile huts occupy the periphery of potholed roads, she said every Sunday her family of five gathers to listen to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. She belongs to a farming family and the way Modi speaks about farmers in his speeches, she said, appeals to her. “He reaches out to the poor,” said Poonam. “Notebandi attacked the rich who used to misuse honest tax payers’ money. He has delivered in Gujarat as well and he should be given a chance to govern UP. Not that I have a problem with Akhilesh, just that Modi is better.”

Poonam has never stepped out of UP, yet is familiar with the “development” in Gujarat. “My brother showed the videos and images of Gujarat he received on WhatsApp,” she divulged.           

In spite of not declaring the CM candidate, the BJP seems to be riding, and riding well, on Modi’s back to displace Akhilesh Yadav, who also remains popular among the youth. In UP, there are close to 25 lakh first-time voters, which has added another dimension to the polls. The parties have gone out of their way to woo the youth, and Modi and Akhilesh are the men to do it for their respective parties. While how the battle culminates in the rest of UP would be known only on March 11, in Amethi at least, the man from Gujarat has the edge, mainly because he has no baggage of anti-incumbency, and, just like Rae Bareli, the alliance has not been able to negotiate successfully.  

Out of the five constituencies in Amethi that go to polls on 27 February, Congress had won only two in 2012 assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha constituency is a bastion of Congress party. With both parties claiming the upper hand, they have ended up competing against each other at two of the five constituencies – Gauriganj and Amethi Sadar. With votes being split between them, BJP would automatically gain more, as BSP had not made a mark in 2012 in Amethi.

In Amethi Sadar, the battle between “maharaja” Sanjay Singh’s first wife and second wife is most keenly watched. Garima, the first wife, contesting on a BJP ticket, is striking an emotional chord with the electorate while campaigning for “justice” against the “man who wronged her”. Sanjay, influential in Amethi, is busy backing Amita, the second wife, who is contesting from Congress, the party that sent him to Rajya Sabha.

With Rahul Gandhi hardly bringing much to the table in his own constituency, another factor drowning out Akhilesh’s popularity is his candidates. The electorate speaks highly of Akhilesh but say his MLAs indulge in hooliganism. For example, in the Amethi Sadar seat, the candidate Gayatri Prajapati, is a rape accused. After the directives of Supreme Court, UP police charged him with separate cases of gangrape and attempt to rape another woman and her minor daughter. When Akhilesh held a rally in Amethion Monday, Prajapati was conspicuously absent.

Ashish Kumar Agrahi has been running a chow mein stall for the past eight years due to lack of employment opportunities.

Selling chow mein in the heart of Amethi on bustling narrow lane running parallel to the Ramleela Maidan, Ashish Kumar Agrahi, 24, said people fear walking out of the ATM after withdrawing cash. “While he has done some commendable work, law and order has worsened under Akhilesh,” said Ashish, who lives with his parents, and has stayed back to help them because his elder brother migrated to Lucknow to work as a property dealer. His father runs a pani puri stall on the same street and the two of them make 500 rupees of profit per day.

Ashish has passed his intermediate exams, but due to lack of employment opportunities, he has been running the chow mein stall for the last eight years. He said some of the people vote for the Congress because of the earlier generation, but the current lot lacks empathy. “You must have come here with high expectations from Mumbai,” he said, pointing at the Tehesildar House. “It was built during Rajiv Gandhi’s time. My parents tell me it has not even been painted since then.”

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In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

Fishermen Near Pakistan, Lanka Shores Caught in a Net of Hostility

This story first appeared on The Quint on 11 January 2017.

When 230 fishermen released from Pakistani prisons disembarked in Veraval, Gujarat on 29 December, Dhirubhai Gohil, 28, had been waiting with a picture of his elder brother, Kalubhai, 35. As fishermen embraced their emotional family members with an outpouring of joy, Dhirubhai enviously showed them the photograph of his brother and asked if they had ever encountered him. “None of them knew,” he said. “I keep wondering the conditions in which he is living, and worse.”

Uncertain Fate of Fishermen

In 2008, Kalubhai fell off his boat while fishing in the Arabian Sea and was carried across the maritime boundary where a few Pakistani fishermen rescued him. This is what Dhirubhai was told by another fisherman who was caught with Kalubhai and was released two years ago.

He further told me that his hair has grown very long, and he has become insane because of being beaten up constantly.

Dhirubhai, younger brother of Kalubhai

According to his account, when the Pakistani fishermen released Kalubhai to get back to India, the forces patrolling the sea shot him in the leg. He was labeled a spy and has since been languishing in a Pakistani jail.

Security forces on both sides closely watch the maritime boundary in the Arabian Sea, which is part of a territorial battle between the neighbouring countries. Sir Creek – a 95-kilometre estuary on the border between the countries – is claimed in its entirety by Pakistan, while India claims half of it.

In the waters off Gujarat and Pakistan’s Sindh province, hundreds of fishermen from both the countries have been taken into custody and some have been fired upon, for straying across the maritime border.

The fate of the fishermen comes up in peace talks, where they are used as a tool to display diplomatic magnanimity. Within a span of 10 days – 25 December to 5 January – Pakistan released 447 of the fishermen they had arrested, while 65 were captured on 28 December. Thus, the cycle of arrests and releases continues.

Should the Countries Follow ‘No Arrest’ Policy?

Most of the fishermen are small-time operators. After they are captured, their families survive on the Rs 4,500 they get from the government per month, along with doing odd jobs. With lack of adequate navigation systems on their boats, which are not robust enough to sustain the currents or winds in the Arabian Sea, they unwittingly cross the maritime boundary.

“These fishing boats cannot be anchored in the sea nor turned back,” said senior journalist Jatin Desai, general secretary for the Indian chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.

Fishermen have to go towards Pakistan. They do not get reasonable quantity of fish on the Indian side because of pollution.

Jatin Desai, General Secretary, Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy

Desai further added that the countries should follow a “no-arrest policy” until they permanently solve the dispute, which is “not too complex”.

Arrests increase as cross-border firing intensifies. The day they are captured, it changes their life along with those of their family members. We should look at it from a humanitarian perspective.

Dhirubhai said whenever he looks at his nephews – aged 10 and 12 – he wonders if they would ever get to see their father again. “They hardly remember him,” he said. “Even if my brother has gone insane or has become handicapped, I want him to come back, so that they can meet him.”

Although they lived in a joint family in Somnath district’s Jamwada village, Dhirubhai, who works in the diamond market, spent most of his time in Surat. Post 2008, he has been spending more time with the family, and the rest, writing futile letters to the administration and politicians regarding the release of his brother.

“My brother’s family is now my responsibility,” he said. “His wife is not very educated. His daughter is 16 and is still studying. We are struggling to make ends meet.”

Fractured Relationship With Neighbours

Veljibhai Masani, president of the Gujarat Fishermen Association, said that international maritime laws mandate that fishermen be sent back to their home countries without being arrested. “Unfortunately, fishermen suffer because of the fractured relationship between the neighbouring countries,” he said.

Pakistan has seized 900 Indian boats and India is in possession of 150, according to rough estimates. And there are 320 Indian fishermen in Pakistan’s jails while 150 Pakistani fishermen languish in Indian prisons. Families of these captives do not know if they would ever get to see them again.

Maritime Dispute with Sri Lanka

A similar dispute is boiling down south as well, where the Palk Strait, a 137-kilometre strip of water separating Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, is the bone of contention between the two countries.

In December, the External Affairs Ministry said that India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a Joint Working Group to address the issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu being arrested. But only last week, the Sri Lankan navy detained 10 Indian fishermen in two separate instances. Barring the geographical differences, the quagmire of suffering fishermen and their families’ plight remains the same here too.

Emotional Turmoil of Those Arrested

If and when they return, the emotional turmoil leaves an indelible mark on them. Jagdip Solanki, 33, migrated to Diu and started his own fishing business, while earlier he used to be a salaried employee at Porbandar, earning Rs 10,000 per month.

Jagdip, who has a 10-year old son and two daughters aged 2 and 4, has been arrested twice, and spent 6 months both the times before being released. “The first time I accidentally crossed the border,” he said, adding he did not want to ride his luck further. “The second time I was picked up from the Indian side of the border.”

The experience in jail was unbearable, he said. “We did not get food on time,” he recollected. “We were made to work for hours and would occasionally be beaten up.”

Even after being released the first time, Jagdip went back to the sea, leaving his wife on tenterhooks. When he came back after being released the second time, which happened four years ago, his wife put her foot down. “I took a loan of around Rs 30 lakh, migrated to Diu and set up my business,” he said. “I do not even look at the Porbandar area. But I still have to clear around Rs 8-10 lakhs of the loan.”

Migration is Not A Viable Option

However, not many can take the decision to migrate, or change profession. While the fishermen are encouraging their kids and relatives to study and pursue other vocations, those already in it continue to work due to the financial burdens and lack of other skills.

Vishal Solanki, 25, was one of the fishermen released on 25 December. He managed to reunite with his family after two years just before New Year’s Eve. “It was an emotional moment for the entire family,” he said, referring to his parents and sister. “We could not hold our tears back.”

Being the elder brother, Vishal had taken the responsibility of his sister Bhavika’s studies. Vishal was arrested immediately after she completed her graduation. With his arrival, Bhavika, after a two-year break, will have a crack at her post-graduation. It has only been more than a week since he has returned. But it won’t be long before Vishal is back in the sea.

Environment be damned, Modi to lay foundation for Shivaji statue in Mumbai sea

This piece first appeared on Catch News on 23 December 2016.

After renaming Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), the Maharashtra state government has moved on to another burning issue.

On Saturday, 24 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the much-delayed memorial of the Maratha king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.

 

 

The 192-metre statue, roughly 1.5 kilometres from the Raj Bhavan and 3.5 kilometres into the sea, is supposed to be the tallest in the world. However, apart from spending more than Rs 3,500 crore of the taxpayers’ money, it is likely to result in a lot of trouble for the city of Mumbai.

Destroying marine habitat

Environmentalists say it will severely affect the 110-km coastal area, along with rupturing the marine life and consequently destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.

Stalin Dayanand of the NGO Vanashakti said the pollution control board needs to monitor the soil used for the construction of the project. “If you are going to reclaim land, you have to use marine soil by law,” he said, adding if the authorities indeed use marine soil, the project would never be concluded because the cost would be drastically multiplied.

“The metro project is going to generate 5.4 million tons of mud, and there is no disposal plan for it. It will be used for the Shivaji memorial, making the sea turbid with foreign particles. Marine life will be ruptured and fishermen will be the hardest hit.”

Around 80,000 fishermen’s livelihoods depend on it, and they do not have an alternate source of income, said Damodar Tandel of the Akhil Maharashtra Machimar Kriti Samiti (AMMKS).

“The 42-acre bed planned in the sea is a prime fishing spot for us,” he said. “It is also a breeding spot for big fish. Prawns, lobsters and 40 types of crabs are found there. Out of the Rs 2,000 crore worth of fish Maharashtra exports per year, half comes from the two docks in South Mumbai. We are not opposed to the memorial, but we are terrified by its location.”

About 450 small boats and 1,500 large ones, which do daily business in the sea, will mount black flags when Modi arrives to lay the foundation stone, said Tandel.

“Three main wholesale fish markets – Sassoon dock, Bhaucha Dhakka, and Crawford will be shut,” he said.

“Fishermen across Maharashtra are supporting us. The 100-odd retail markets will also be on strike, and fisherwomen will form a human chain at Marine Drive and show black flags to Modi.”

Tandel claimed the police were threatening his workers with legal action, but the fishermen’s community is in no mood to capitulate. “We are exercising our constitutional right,” he said.

Did environment bodies aid statue?

Last month, Vinayak Mete, head of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, the group appointed by the state to implement the project, termed the allegations by fishermen ‘baseless’, and cited clearances by the Environment Ministry, along with favourable reports by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).

However, there is a case pending in the National Green Tribunal where lawyer Asim Sarode, who is representing the petitioners, has pointed out flaws in the state’s defence.

“The NIO suggested mitigation measures while saying there is no harm to the environment. Is it not contradictory?” he asked. “The organisation is losing credibility because it is using its knowledge for the purposes of government.”

In February 2015, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was prepared for the state’s public works department by the NIO and NEERI. The year-long study noted that the project would increase congestion on roads, air pollution and solid waste generation.

Sarode further challenged the process through which the government got exemption from conducting a public hearing. “The project did not involve rehabilitation and resettlement of the public, and since it was located away from human habitation, the public hearing was dispensed,” reads the affidavit of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Further, environment clearances say there should be no dredging at all. “But the government will require water for construction, as salt water cannot be used,” said Sarode. “The government contacted the maritime board, which said a tunnel duck is required inside the water. But any kind of tunnel cannot transpire without dredging.”

On 22 December, the government asked for more time to submit its reply to the NGT. The next date of hearing is 31 January.

Other problems

Apart from environmental hazards, the memorial is likely to intensify problems like the already congested traffic situation in South Mumbai.

“If you are creating a tourist destination with access from Marine Drive, you will have to create parking spaces,” said Stalin. “The entire Colaba and Marine Drive area would be choked. To conquer that, problem, I fear they will again reclaim the sea along Marine Drive to create parking spaces. They are out to ruin the marine environment.”

Simple matter of politics

Commentators believe that by holding the foundation stone ceremony right now, the BJP government is laying the foundation for the upcoming Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai polls.

Stalin said the Shivaji Memorial is a “meaningless expenditure to indulge in cheap vote bank politics”. “If you want to seriously pay respect to the great warrior, spend one-tenth of the amount and maintain the Raigad fort,” he said.

An online petition at change.orgwith close to 15,000 supporters says the money could be spent on “something better – education, infrastructure, food”, especially when the state is reeling from starvation deaths and an agrarian crisis, among other problems.

But speaking in the legislative Assembly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “Since we do not ask our father how much money he spends on food, how can we think about the cost when it comes to building a memorial for Shivaji Maharaj? He is our pride and it would only be right to build a grand memorial in his name.”

The CM has not relented. And since the PM has obliged to lay the foundation stone, he too seems to be okay with the quagmire fishermen find themselves in, as well as the environmental perils pointed out by experts.

However, it leaves Tandel with a poignant question. “Our PM keeps visiting developed countries. Does he not see how they invest in protecting their environment?”

 

‘Curfew Classes’: A Ray of Hope For Students in Kashmir Valley

This story first appeared on The Quint on 15 December 2016.

About five months ago, one fine day, Naira Bilal, 16, realised she may not be able to attend school anytime soon. A significant chunk of the portion remained untouched with the all-important Xth standard exam looming ahead. It seemed like Naira’s school life had come to an abrupt end.

When Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July, thousands of students in Kashmir Valley experienced similar emotional turmoil. Infuriated Kashmiris thronged the streets protesting against the heavy-handed measures of the Indian government. Schools shut down overnight as the Valley was engulfed with protests.

“It was very disturbing,” Naira said. “When the situation deteriorated in Kashmir, there was no way we could concentrate on our studies. In a hostile atmosphere, we students are hit the most for no fault of ours.”

While thousands of students continued to suffer through the turbulence, a few like Naira found a ray of hope in Srinagar’s Shalimar area located along the now forlorn banks of the majestic Dal Lake. A group of three youngsters – Inam-ul-Rasool, Sheikh Majid and Gazala Ali – decided to start free tuitions for kids in their vicinity missing out on schools due to the unrest. They called it “curfew classes”.

Imparting Education Amidst Unrest

“Within a week’s time, we realised the situation is not going to pacify anytime soon,” said Inam, who is pursuing his PhD in soil and water conservation. “The three of us thought of it as an opportunity to do something good for the people.”

While the idea might have been noble, the execution was complicated. With the Valley shrouded in hostility, Inam and co had to keep the students’ safety in mind, along with curfew hours and Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s protest calendars, that are religiously followed by the people.

We could not start our classes from anybody’s homes because that would have jeopardised the safety of the owner of the house. We had to chalk out a holistic plan before we could begin the programme, without which, no parent would have trusted us with their kid.

Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar

Five months down the line from mooting the idea, the curfew classes that started in one room with 7-8 students, has now blossomed into a family of 170 students. Inam said they have hired more teachers – 14 to be precise – and now occupy four rooms. Other teachers are pursuing higher education in different streams.

Support From Locals

While Srinagar has been in hibernation mode for months with barren streets, Shalimar area has bustled with activity alongside deserted houseboats and anchored shikaras in Dal Lake.

Inam gratefully said they received critical support at every juncture from the people who came across their initiative. “A respected member of our locality, Fayaz Ahmad, facilitated a hall at the Abu Bakar Masjid in our locality where the very first class transpired,” Inam said. “The three more rooms, that we now occupy, have been provided by a landlord Gulzar Ahmad Bhat free of cost. When you initiate an idea from the bottom of your heart, you come across generous people.”

Respite for Students

Inam said the parents did not require much convincing before they agreed to send their child to curfew classes. Parents had been panic-stricken, he said, worried about the studies of their kids. Curfew classes, in fact, emerged like gushing water in a desert for them.

The initial plan was to keep the classes limited to kids studying from 7-10 standards. But as the word spread, people in the vicinity demanded expansion. “We even teach nursery students now,” Inam said with great élan. “We started with kids from our locality. Steadily, others too joined in.”

As the number of students mushroomed, scheduling of classes got more meticulous.

In accordance with curfew hours, the first batch start coming in at 6 am, going on till 9 am. The second, which starts at 6 pm, goes on for two hours. Students have continued attending despite the reducing temperatures in the Valley. Curfew classes have provided a refuge from the claustrophobic atmosphere prevailing in the area.

Inam said they also organised badminton and painting competitions, so that the students would get a glimpse of normalcy amidst the unrest that has devoured their lives.

The ‘Societal Classes’

Around 15-20 students of curfew classes, along with Naira, appeared for the board exams concluded last month. Inam is confident about their scores. “We made sure they completed their portion before the exams,” he said. “We sat with them after they answered their papers. It has been a mighty spirited effort considering the circumstances.”

Naira said she would not have been able to attend the whole paper if not for curfew classes, which were recently renamed as “Societal Classes” because of the support they received from the society. “I am very happy with the way the exams went,” she said. “This initiative has been a huge morale booster. It has been difficult to see the way educational institutes have been targeted.”

More than 30 schools have been set ablaze in the Valley so far. Some time ago, Education Minister Naeem Akhtar even wrote an imploring letter to Geelani – the man manacled by his own government – seeking permission to reopen schools in the Valley. Following the letter, Akhtar received death threats.

Inam called the school burning instances deplorable, and asked, “Which parent or student would want to see their school up in flames?”

At the Receiving End

While the initiative of curfew classes might have been widely hailed, it has had its fair share of detractors. Inam and co have faced wrath from some people for supposedly disrespecting the sentiment of people protesting against the Indian State. “We have been called government agents and accused of disregarding the protest calendar,” said Inam.

We respect the sentiment of people. Lekin protest apni jagah our education apni jagah. You cannot expect everyone to praise you. The support from kids and their parents matters the most. And when they appreciate you for the efforts you have put in, you know it is worth it.

Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar

Just when Marathwada thought it had recovered from droughts, came demonetisation

This story first appeared on Catch News on 16 November 2016.

Over the last few years, Marathwada and drought have become synonymous with each other. The paucity of rainfall has only intensified the agrarian crisis over half a decade. In 2016, however, even though the rain gods blessed Marathwada, the farmers here are still enduring a drought, though of a unique kind. The drought of notes and currencies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise 500 and 1000-rupee notes on 8 November has crippled the farmers of Marathwada, where every transaction is cash-based.

 

 

Farmer Padmakar Londhe described the scene at the Agriculture Produce Market located in Latur city, which is 50 kilometers from his hometown of Nilanga in Latur district.

“It was chaotic,” he said, when he visited the market to sell his soybean on Thursday last week. “Farmers had come all the way from their remote villages to sell their produce and buyers did not have the money to pay them back.”

Londhe had to dump his 20 quintals of soybean at the market and head back home without receiving his dues.

Can’t prepare for next season

“I was told to come again next week,” Londhe said, adding that the unnecessary expense of a trip merely to collect his dues would definitely pinch. “I did not have money to go back to the village, or to have a cup of tea. I borrowed some before heading back. The situation is still disastrous. I am waiting for the money, without which I cannot prepare for the Rabi season.”

Due to the relatively adequate rainfall, farmers had been satisfied with their Kharif crops this season. The idea was to raise enough capital for the impending Rabi season by selling the Kharif produce.

This is a critical period for the farmers, for season-specific nature of their profession does not allow a flexible window for delay in preparations.

Senior journalist and agriculture expert Atul Deulgaonkar, who is based in Latur, said 25% of the farmers are yet to sow for the Rabi season.

“Others who have done so, need money for further cultivation,” he said. “A delay or a break could wash out the whole season. The demonetizsation has created an economic impasse.”

Farmers, after selling their crop in the city, generally shop for the fertilizers, seeds, a week’s ration, medicines, etc and head back to their village. But the cash crunch appears to have paralysed the entire informal sector.

Shivaji Sonawane, who is a farmer and runs a fertilizer and seed shop in Latur, said there are around 80 such retail shops in the city, which had been making around a lakh rupees per day before 8 November.

“For the past few days, the business has dwindled to hardly 5,000 rupees,” he said. “Farmers turn up with their old notes. But we have to send them away with a heavy heart.”

In a rally in Goa, Modi made an emotional appeal to the citizenry to cooperate for 50 days. However, it might spell doom for the agrarian region by then, for the lack of preparations will nullify the entire Rabi crop.

Sonawane said his six-acre grape-field is lying idle because he cannot find laborers for work.

“The grape season may be March but the preparations begin around this time,” he said. “We export grapes as well. It is a lucrative source of income, which now appears to have been jeopardised. The whole farmland has come to a standstill.”

50 more days will just make it worse

The repercussions of demonetisation are glaring. The rate of soybean has dropped by Rs 150 this week, meaning a farmer would make Rs 150 less than what he would have made a week ago behind every quintal.

The entire exchange of commodities has been encumbered, with the informal sector coming under the weather. Their business has dwindled to a half with many customers buying goods on credit. Vendors dealing in green vegetables are selling them off at one fifth of the cost, for they get rotten quickly.

Head of the Latur Agriculture Produce Market, Lalit Shah, said the activity at the market has drastically decreased post 8 November. “From receiving 75,000 bags of soybean per day, we have come to less than 20,000,” he said.

“Farmers are aware of the problems traders are facing. They are sitting on their crop. We implore the ones who come to cooperate. If it continues like this, my market will shut down.”

Farmer Ganesh Madje, who has a 20-acre land on the outskirts of Latur city, said he has around 80 quintals of produce at home, which he cannot sell off and raise capital for the Rabi season.

Banks in Latur are far and few, and it is unaffordable for farmers to leave their work to spend a day standing in queue for Rs 4,000. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of farmers have their accounts with the district banks, which, locals have been told, are not authorised to replace the old notes.

The nationalised banks are authorised, but only a handful of farmers have their accounts with those banks. And even the nationalised banks are sparingly doling out exchanges, for they too have been caught off guard.

“The past few years, we did not have the money,” said Madje. “Our situation this time around is more troublesome. We have the money, but we cannot use it.”

 

In Silikote Near LoC in Uri, a Child Wakes Crying ‘Firing, Firing’

This story first appeared on The Quint on 28 October 2016.

Sophia Ramza wakes up shuddering in the middle of almost every night. She screams “firing, firing”, and weeps for hours before going back to bed. She is three years old. “This is how our kids are growing up,” her father Mohammad says regretfully.

Mohammad and his family live in the hilly village of Silikote in the Uri sector of North Kashmir. A ruggedly scenic hamlet surrounded by mountains covered with dense forests, Silikote is one of the many villages located right along the Line of Control (LoC). It is hardly 10 kilometres from the bustling market of Uri and the Uri Brigade headquarters where the 18 September attack – in which 20 soldiers lost their lives – transpired.

Villagers’ Ordeal

Since the Uri attack and India’s retaliation with surgical strikes, locals say the tension along the border has intensified, with the sounds of bullets reverberating through the mountains almost every night.

Only we know what it takes to live on the LoC. If the ongoing tensions escalate, we would be the worst sufferers.

Mohammad Ramza, Resident of Silikote

The fear and panic is palpable in Silikote. As one enters the village through the bumpy, narrow and slightly intimidating road heading up the hill, an uneasy calm betrays the truth behind the serene beauty. Villagers are reluctant to talk. “You journalists do not know what we are going through,” a woman snaps back after a request for an interview. “You will write about us and go back to your comfortable lives. We are sick of talking about our ordeal.”

Travails of Residing Near the LoC

Finally, a 15-year-old Imtiaz Ahmed, standing on the corner of the hill gazing at the Haaji Peer stream flowing through Silikote, agrees to a chat. The schools are shut, he says, and everybody gets home before the sunset. “It is scary,” he says shyly.

There are not enough bunkers either. We end up cowering under the bed or table when we hear gunshots at home.

Imtiaz Ahmed, Resident of Silikote

The army movement along the border has increased after 18 September. The road that travels to the main town of Uri from Silikote is guarded meticulously. One can enter the village only after rigorous checking and verification. Reporters who have reported extensively from the LoC say the Pakistani rangers keep a close eye on any movement in villages along the border. A Pakistani Army post is located on the right side of Silikote, overlooking the village.

The fencing that separates India and Pakistan is sporadic in the village of Silikote. In fact, the Haaji Peer stream, which originates in Pakistan and eventually joins the Jhelum River, separates Silikote from Khawjabanday, a village in the Pakistan administered Kashmir. Earlier, it used to be a part of Silikote. Residents here even have relatives in Khawjabanday.

Hostility Disrupts Normalcy

Located merely 500 metres west of Silikote is a village called Churanda, where two civilians had lost their lives on the spot and a person had died of cardiac arrest after a heavy mortar shell fell on a residential house in 2013. Just like Silikote, Churanda too is a divided village with Saljiwar – now in Pakistan-administered Kashmir – once being its part. Residents say the hostility eventually ends up rupturing the lives of Kashmiris – on both sides of the border.

Though Silikote has not suffered any casualties, Mohammad says the news of Churanda had “terrified villagers over here”. Most of the cross-firing is from small arms, yet “the current spate resembles those anxious days,” he says. “It was relatively tolerable before the Uri attack.”

Bearing the Brunt of Ceasefire Violation

In fact, Silikote celebrated India’s Independence Day with a flag hoisting ceremony, a ritual followed every year. Soldiers of India and Pakistan reportedly even exchanged sweets. But the residents wish to live the life they led during the ceasefire agreement, which was practised by both India and Pakistan from 2003 to 2013. It was the first formal armistice between the two countries since militancy erupted in the Valley in early 90s. Lieutenant General BS Thakur and Major General Mohammad Yousuf spoke over the phone and concluded the deal. Simultaneously, the announcement was made in New Delhi and Islamabad. “Those were the days,” says Mohammad. “We could walk out of the house without fear.”

However, in September 2013, a ceasefire violation transpired and since then, both countries have accused each other of breaching the agreement. “Every news of infiltration or ceasefire violation increases our insecurity,” says Mohammad, adding the residents here urge the two countries to keep their politics aside by thinking on humanitarian grounds in order to establish peace.

‘Migration is the Last Resort’

Silikote used to be a prosperous village, which had flourished during the time of the Maharaja. Once a busy trade route for Kashmir, it is now parked on the closed Poonch- Rawlakote road. However, after the closure of the route, substantial migration occurred and now the population is reduced to 600-700. Most in Silikote indulge in labour work at the Uri market, some work as government employees.

Residents here have not considered migrating as yet, like many residing in other villages along the border. But there are chances of Pakistan retaliating after the surgical strikes, which would mean more skirmishes on the LoC, magnifying the vulnerability of the locals living in villages like Silikote. “If tensions do not recede, migration is the only resort we have,” says Mohammad. “Akhir aman ki baat hi kuch aur hai.”

With their tea stall open, two men defy the norm in a standstill Kashmir

This story first appeared on Catch News on 23 October 2016.

Shutters are down. Shopkeepers are huddled in their homes. As far as the eye can see, one can notice barracks parked at regular intervals on the forlorn streets. The city resembles a ghost town, so much so, that the picturesque beauty of Dal Lake is admired only after sparing a thought for the desolate houseboats and anchored Shikaras.

Srinagar – reflecting the picture of the Kashmir Valley – is in hibernation mode, awaiting approval to function from a frail 87-year old man under house arrest. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of Hurriyat, releases an agitation schedule, or “protest calendar”, around which the Valley revolves.

 

 

Except for two men.

Business as usual

Mohammad Shafi, 50, and Mohammad Yousuf, 47, arrive at Lal Chowk’s Lambart Lane in the morning with business-as-usual written all over their demeanour. The two cousins have been running a tea stall here for the past 25 years.

They have seen the grisly days of early ’90s and are living through another hostile phase now. “Even when grenades ruptured the buildings around me in early ’90s, I sold tea from this lane,” says Shafi, taking a break from work, while Yousuf keeps the stall going. “But the current phase is no less a nightmare.”

Shafi used to run a houseboat at Dal Lake before opening up a tea stall. The lack of money for the maintenance and repairs ensured the houseboat leaked and eventually drowned in the lake. He is diabetic and has to buy medicines worth Rs 200 a day, along with taking care of five kids – two daughters and three sons – of which three are studying.”I admire my fellow shopkeepers for following the calendar,” says the robustly built, kurta clad Shafi. “I even identify and endorse the cause they are fighting for. We are all sick of the repression in Kashmir. But I cannot afford to participate in the strike. I have a family to feed.”

100 days of unrest

It has been more than three months since Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed in Tral, triggering an endemic of protests, resulting in over 90 civilian deaths and 12,000 pellet wounds. The disaffection of the years, piled on by the current burgeoning crisis, has led to a mass strike, or hartal, in the Valley. And the strings of the hartal are firmly in the hands of Geelani, who remains shackled in his house. He regulates the hartal with the ease of handling an electricity switch.

If Geelani declares Monday a “deal day” from 5 pm to 8 pm, Lal Chowk has the look of Marine Drive during the stipulated period, before obediently going back to being dormant. Except, again, two men.

Tea warriors

The only corner alive in Srinagar on a hartal day is that of the tea stall at Lambart Lane.

In the past three months, it has become an adda of sorts for local journalists reporting from the ground. Even journalists traveling from the rest of India, or for that matter foreign journalists, have tasted Shafi’s tea.

Steps of the closed shops across the street work as benches for Shafi’s customers. Journalists sit and discuss their stories over tea and biscuits. Shafi also serves omelets, which come in handy when no eatery is open in the city. Common civilians also appear occasionally for a breather, curious for an update of the situation from reporters over a hot cup of tea.

Interestingly, these are not Shafi’s only customers. He also serves paramilitary forces patrolling the area, on the lookout for protestors. “Initially, the security forces would be apprehensive about me running my business,” says Shafi. “Once they realised I am not creating any nuisance, they too became my customers.”

When asked if he has made friends with the forces, Shafi smiles. “They are cordial,” he says. “But I am not sure if they will not run after me with a stick.”

A matter of equality

Shafi, by selling tea and omelets, has managed a feat that the tallest of leaders have found arduous. He makes security forces, journalists and civilians stand on the same platform, albeit just literally.

He says his fellow shopkeepers do not treat him like an outcast for being the odd man out. “I have highest of respect for Geelani sahib,” he says. “Mine is not an act of defiance but that of desperation.”

Defiance or desperation, he makes around Rs 800 a day. The Valley, however, has lost almost Rs 10,000 crore in the past three and a half months. Imtiaz Khan, 32, lower middle class man, makes a living out of selling garments from a small shop at Lal Chowk, says he is finding it difficult to sustain his household, yet is in no mood to throw in the towel. “Enough is enough,” he says. “We are ready for anything this time. The commands of our leader will be followed no matter what.”

The influence Geelani wields over the people of Valley pushes the existence of government and that of the opposition into the realm of speculation. Education Minister Naeem Akhtar even wrote an imploring letter to Geelani – the man manacled by his own government – seeking permission to reopen schools in the Valley.

In Kashmir, the line between curfew and hartal has been blurred, except for the fact that a curfew can be willingly disregarded. Geelani is in control, and he is doing his thing. But quietly and respectfully defying his edicts in a corner of Lambart Lane, so are Shafi and Yousuf.