Amidst the targeted killings of minorities and non-locals in Kashmir, a mass exodus of labourers raises questions about a brewing economic crisis with key sectors in the valley set to face labour shortages.
Dhruv, a 40-year-old mason from Bihar, who has been working in Kashmir for the past decade has already started collecting money from people who owe him. He is so afraid to step out of his house that he often asks his trusted local clients to accompany him.
"I have been working here in Kashmir and supporting my family. Now ever since these killings we are afraid and want to go back to our families. If we are alive only then we can work,” he told TRT World.
Many workers who were living with Dhruv have already started returning back to their hometowns. Even Dhruv believes that in a day or two he will move out as the situation is still not safe for him.
"I don’t know how killing us would benefit anyone. We are poor. We want to work and support our families," his apprentice (wishing not to be named) said.
Amidst the targeted killings of minorities and non-locals in Kashmir, a mass exodus of labourers has begun with thousands of them lining up outside the train stations and bus stands with their families, attempting to flee the valley.
The migration of labourers began after 11 civilians, out of which five were non-local labourers - were targeted in separate incidents in the month of October. The sudden migration of workers has raised serious questions about an economic crisis brewing in Kashmir as many sectors including manufacturing and construction are soon going to face a shortage of labour.
According to rough estimates, Kashmir houses anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 migrant labourers from states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, and Jharkhand who are employed in various sectors like agriculture, construction, household, manufacturing, and other small scale industries.
According to the 2011 census, migrant labourers make up 80 percent of the valley’s construction force, with 12 percent of them working in the household industry while a considerable number is also engaged in agriculture. However, as the fear of getting killed grips these labourers, the employers also fear crippling losses.
Saqib Mir, a prominent business owner from the valley dealing with packaged drinking water, has been trying hard to ensure that labourers don’t venture out from complexes. He believes that in the last 5-8 years – with tensions always on the rise because of one reason or another – businesses in the valley have already suffered huge losses. The mass exodus is just another phase, but this time it is more of a challenge for the administration than for the people.
“The administration has provided security to some industrial estates but this is unusual for us. We don’t want to work in thick security blankets. Industries can't work like that,” Mir told TRT World.
With the harvesting season which begins around September and lasts until November, already at its peak, even the agriculture sector is bound to face the heat of migration. From facing an acute shortage of labour to an increase in the daily wages, the exodus of labourers is going to impact every sector.
Ejaz Ayoub, an economic analyst from the region believes that the construction sector which contributes around 16-17 percent to the GDP and is heavily dependent on migrant labourers is going to be severely impacted if workers are gone for an extended period. Similarly, the manufacturing sector, where 80 percent of workers are migrants, is also going to be terribly hit.
However, Ayoub is of the opinion that it will be wrong to call this an exodus and workers will return back as soon as the winter is over.
“These workers, like the local population, have seen worse things happening here, so I reckon it is a temporary event and they will be back after the winter season,” he told TRT World.
Who is behind the killings?
Analysts say that three ideologically competing armed outfits — The Resistance Front (TRF), ISJK Khorasan, and the newly-floated Geelani Force — have claimed responsibility for the latest killings, causing confusion about what is actually taking place on the ground. Nevertheless, the fear is palpable as migrant labourers are leaving in droves.
Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Kashmiri political analyst and a prominent scholar of human rights and international law believes that with the government controlling all the sources of information it becomes quite difficult to unravel the truth behind these killings.
“There is only one version coming out i.e the government version. All other voices are barred. Media is gagged. You don’t even know who is publishing the statements even from the militant side,” he told TRT World.
He is also of the opinion that the local population believes these killings to be the handiwork of some agencies either to defame them or to create a pretext for more oppressive measures. Even Farooq Abdullah the pro-India politician and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir has mentioned that it is being done to malign the Muslim population.
Hussain also added that killings of local Kashmiri non-Muslims is a replay of the same actions which were orchestrated at the time of the visit of US President Bill Clinton in March 2000.
A total of 35 Sikhs were killed in the Chittisinghpura area of Kashmir. The attack was blamed on five militants who were killed but this whole operation turned out to be fake. According to Lt-General (Retd.) KS Gill, "army officers up to the rank of a captain were involved in the 'fake encounter'."
Even on the day when a prominent Kashmiri Pandit pharmacist was killed, a top US official Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy R Sherman was travelling to India. Showkat believes that incidents like these just add weightage to such claims.
On October 20 as the army gunned down two terrorists, they claimed that one of them identified as Adil Wani, who was the district commander of the TRF, was behind the killing of the carpenter from Uttar Pradesh in Litter, Pulwama.
However, given how ‘facts’ are manufactured by the Indian state apparatus, whether these encounters will be able to stop the exodus of labourers and help to revive the economy, is questionable at best.