Under the scorching sun, Altaf Ahmad Sheikh, 20, a corn-seller is standing outside a recently erected tarpaulin tent on the Baramulla-Srinagar highway, waving his hands full of corn to passing vehicles. Hardly anyone stops to buy but he continues to stand, his face grim.
“I cannot return home empty-handed without earning a few bucks. I cannot let my family starve,” he says in a soft tone, eyes fixed on the highway. The wait is for that one person who will open Altaf’s account today.
The pandemic necessitated lockdown has exacerbated his financial issues. Last year too, he wasn’t able to earn in the lockdown. That was a different lockdown though that Kashmiris only were blessed with.
Under the tent, sitting beside a bonfire on a dusty mat is Habibullah Sheikh, Altaf’s elder brother. Donning a soiled kurta pyjama, the senior Sheikh is busy roasting corn. The bonfire has collaborated with the scorching Sun to drench him in sweat. Just the first look on his face tells how much hard work he must be putting in his small business.
With a family of six, life has not been easy for Sheikh’s family. Though the younger Altaf is his partner in earning, his wife and three children, among them a daughter, wholly depend on him.
“The harsh situation after August 5 last year lead us to the brink of starvation,” says Habibullah, anger visible on his face.
“It was a double distress for us,” says the senior Sheikh.
Our conversation briefly comes to halt, as his attention is caught by a white Santro. Altaf rushes towards the car and manages to sell the man inside few corn cobs for fifty bucks, their first sale for the day.
“On one hand we were pained by the loss of special status and on the other, our survival came to a standstill,” continues Habibullah after pocketing the money.
After August 5 last year, like Habibullah thousands of street vendors across Kashmir were rendered jobless as the valley was put under a severe clampdown that lasted for about six months.
“All our savings were exhausted during this period,” he says. Before they could have stabilised their lives when the siege was eased, the UT, as they call it now, was once again put under strict lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 lockdown was the final nail in the coffin,” says Altaf, impatient in his demeanour.
The family was provided a helping hand by neighbours. “It was they and God that we survive today,” he says.
The senior Sheikh has never been to school, while his younger brother is a Class 9th dropout.
“I could not continue my studies due to financial constraints,” says junior Sheikh. Now, he helps his brother to make the ends meet.
“I want to give my children quality education but, looking at the present condition, the future seems bleak,” says Habibullah whose daughter is a Class 3rd student.
There are more than a hundred such corn-sellers dotting the highway from Singhpore to HMT on the Baramulla-Srinagar highway. Most of them are from Sozeith Goripora, a big hamlet in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
These corn-sellers, generally, do not have agricultural land of their own. They buy ripe corn from landowners of adjacent villages and then sell it after roasting, along the highway. This is their only source of income and they have been involved in this work from decades now.
On August 16, the local administration decided to relax lockdown restrictions in Kashmir, bringing a ray of hope to the corn-sellers.
Few metres away from Habibullah’s tent is stationed Abdul Rashid Sheikh. Sitting under his smoke-filled tent, his story is no different than Habibullah’s. He used to be a carpet weaver but was forced to give up after he developed some complications in his eyes. Now, like Habibullah, he earns his livelihood selling roasted corn along the highway.
Wiping his smoke-induced tears, Rashid, 40, looks like a child weeping over his father’s death. But no, he does so for his children, from many years now.
When asked if the government reached out to them for any assistance during the lockdown, a group of the corn-sellers answer in unison: “tim kya help karhan? timovoy yourai nyuv” (How would they help? They took from us instead) – a jibe at Indian government’s decision on the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 (A).
Abdul Razaq Dar, in his eighties, too, is a corn-seller. “I have never experienced such hardships in my entire life as these lockdowns brought,” he says.
“I am witness to Kashmir conflict from its beginning in the 1990s till date but the last fourteen months have totally broken our spines.”
“Losing hope is not an option,” he adds, tired.
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