Featured image: Representative image of a brick kiln. Photo: Flickr/McKay Savage CC BY 2.0
Srinagar: Deep inside the villages of Budgam in central Kashmir, employees of the Jammu and Kashmir government are looking for migrant labourers who had tested positive for COVID-19 but who have since “gone into hiding”.
“They have either shared wrong phone numbers or the numbers don’t exist at all,” an employee of the revenue department told The Wire Science. “In some cases, the phone numbers were traced to villages in Uttar Pradesh. A few numbers actually belonged to [other] locals.”
In a move that has raised eyebrows in the Kashmir Valley, the government this month allowed brick-kiln labourers from outside J&K to return to work in different districts, including Budgam, Anantnag and Kulgam.
The decision was taken at a time when Kashmir was experiencing a surge in the number of cases as well as of deaths due to COVID-19. The government even reimposed a lockdown in the region until July 28.
Thus far, 16,429 cases and 285 deaths due to COVID-19 have been reported in the region.
The issue of a mass influx of labourers, mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, hogged headlines last Sunday when a video shot by a journalist at Ramban, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, showed them being transported in buses. Some of these labourers told this correspondent they haven’t been tested for COVID-19.
An official of the labour department, however, said they were being tested at Lower Munda, ahead of Ramban, before being allowed to proceed towards Kashmir.
Even so, this is unlike the last few months, when every Kashmiri returning from outside was quarantined at isolation facilities on the highway until their COVID-19 reports were available.
Thus far, around 23,000 labourers, including those from Jammu, have returned to the Valley’s brick kilns, according to labour commissioner Abdul Rashid War. These labourers were facing joblessness in their native states and form the bulk of the workforce in Kashmir’s kilns. War said a maximum of 2,000 labourers are being allowed to enter the Valley on a daily basis.
“We have so far tested 18,000 labourers, of which around 133 have tested positive,” said deputy commissioner of Anantnag, K.K. Sidha, who oversees testing operations in Lower Munda.
According to deputy commissioner of Budgam Shahbaz Mirza, around 10,000 labourers have arrived in Budgam as well. This district has around 190 registered kilns and 100 or so unregistered ones.
Mirza said around 90 migrant labourers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Budgam while a health official said the number was around 105. And when they do test positive, “it is not only the immediate family members of the labourer but their coworkers who are at risk as well,” the official said.
Brick-kiln owners have to ensure the labourers in their employ have to be provided protecting gear when working, and quarantined when ill. However, the officials said these directions are seldom implemented.
A control room has been set up to trace labourers and employees from different departments and to visit the kilns to monitor their working conditions, Mirza added.
Fear in the villages
A brick kiln owner from Gudastho, a village with about 60 kilns, said labourers and their families live in makeshift sheds made of bricks, with tin roofs. “These are small one-room … sheds in the premises of the kilns, where physical distancing is impossible,” the owner said on condition of anonymity.
The government first defended its decision to allow labourers to return for work after kiln owners approached the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, K. Pandurang Pole. However, when the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise in the Valley, the divisional commissioner on July 21 directed all deputy commissioners in Kashmir’s districts on where brick kilns have resumed work to ensure all protocols were followed.
For now, each district’s administration is required to treat those with COVID-19 within the district itself. Only people with severe symptoms can be shifted to larger hospitals in Srinagar.
This limitation followed an admission by the government that it doesn’t have enough beds in hospitals. “When hospitals run out of space to deal with the pandemic, people have no option but to take care of themselves and exercise precaution,” per a video released by the administration of Srinagar on Twitter.
In Budgam’s villages, local residents also fear the kilns could emerge as new hotspots. Showkat Ahmad, a resident of Nasrullahpora, a village where brick kilns operate, said the labourers live in “pathetic conditions” in the kilns’ premises.
“The entire Valley has been shut and its economy is in shambles. We don’t know when life will return to normal,” Ahmad, a government employee, said. “In such a scenario, why has it become a priority to ferry these poor labourers to Kashmir and make them as well as the people living adjacent to the kilns vulnerable to a fatal infection?”
COVID-19 is not known to be fatal in most people, but Ahmad and many others feel at a loss because they haven’t been inspired by the government’s response.
Quoting a kiln owner from Nasrullahpora, a revenue employee said two of the labourers who had tested positive for COVID-19 had been picked up from his kiln after four days of stay.
“You can well imagine how vulnerable these labourers and their families have become. People have shut themselves inside their homes in these villages, fearing they might contract the infection,” the employee said.