SRINAGAR, India – A crippling labor crunch has hit India-administered Kashmir in the thick of its harvest season after the government’s contentious decision of stripping the disputed territory of its semi-autonomous status that has thrown the troubled state into a fresh turmoil.
The government, anticipating a backlash to its Aug. 5 move of revoking Article 370 of the constitution, asked all non-locals to move out of the Himalayan valley and imposed a strict curfew and communications blackout in the region.
Thousands of migrant laborers who moved to Kashmir from different parts of India in search of employment were among those bused out, days before the government deployed tens of thousands of extra troops in already one of the highest militarized zones in the world.
Every summer, the valley is flooded with an estimated 500,000 migrant laborers, according to official figures.
The trend began in the late 1990s when skilled and unskilled laborers started arriving from different parts of India. Their expertise and relatively lower wage demands helped them outwit the local labor force.
But the sudden reverse migration this summer created a labor vacuum in the construction and agriculture sectors – two of the mainstays of Kashmir’s economy.
But farmers have rediscovered their age-old tradition of pooling the family-and-friends workforce to help each other in harvesting their ripe golden grain in the crimson-yellow season of autumn in Kashmir.
Young boys and girls, who remain home since schools and colleges have been shut for the last two months, are also helping their families and neighborhoods to augment the workforce – an age-old tradition colloquially called “halshari” or voluntary acting together for a community good.
Ramzan Joo, his two daughters, and a son have just finished collecting the harvest from their field in a south Kashmir village, abuzz with agricultural activities as dozens of security forces personnel clad in riot gear guarded the highway that runs through large swathes of paddy fields on both sides of the road.
“It was a difficult job this year, with no laborers around, but thanks to the classmates of my son, who made our efforts easy,” Joo told EFE. His son and the daughters are college students and part of a group that lends helping hand to farmers in the neighborhood.
“We have formed volunteer groups of eight students each to make our people understand that we can do our job ourselves easily,” Aqib Altaf, a university student, told EFE.
But it is not voluntary everywhere. In a nearby village, students get paid by well-off farmers for their day’s work in the fields.
“We charge the farmers who can pay and use the money for our basic needs,” Zafir Ahmad, a student, said. “We want to prove that we can earn locally and our work can also be done without non-local laborers.”
Ghulam Rasool, a government teacher, said the revival of the “halshari” system has also restored a deep sense of bonding among each other.
“This has united the villagers more strongly than before,” the teacher told EFE.
He said that it was not unusual as people used to volunteer for repair works of houses, public roads, small bridges or even help out needy ones collectively – a tradition that has waned over the years.
A university student, Parvez, who didn’t give his real name, said the community joint effort “saves both our resources and time and also unites us in the testing times.”
Shayak Ahmad, a bank employee, had “almost forgotten the art of harvesting” but is “in high spirits now working in paddy fields along with my fellow villagers.”
“As the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’” he said. “The absence of non-local laborers has taught us a lot.”