Of development, environment and migrant labourers

While development has been sold as an antidote to social and political problems, there are issues that remain unspoken and undiscussed. 

Indian Railways’ highest railroad bridge in Kashmir, passes over my village Saliyaloo in Qazigund town which is currently administered by the twin districts of Anantnag and Kulgam.

Located at the southern end of the Kashmir valley, Qazigund is the opening to the lands across the mountains. A tunnel, named after the first Prime Minster of India, bores through the mountains to make a pass where none existed and this railroad bridge strengthens the connect.

The spectacular engineering on this project enthrals people who come here from nearby villages and towns come to see this magnificent structure and spend a good time taking selfies. Groups of youngsters come here to rest and to enjoy the cool breeze.

But many things here were buried when this humongous body came into existence.

What lies beneath the cylindrical legs of the said bridge spanning across the ends of a tributary of Jhelum, also known as Veith in local parlance, flowing silently besides our once-sleepy and green village, is not very well known.

Some years back, we had small freshwater springs in our village where people would come to find a cure for their ailments. Local folklore would tempt people to take this water for ‘expelling evil spirits’ and some would use it to cure the diseased.

Today, however, the pillars supporting the bridge, filled with mud and sand, have their bases where these small springs existed when I was a child.

These pillars came into shape after a lot of men and material was used on this Herculean project. Compensation to the villagers and landowners, and so much more later, the bridge has changed the village as much as it has changed the environment.

But that is not all that has been affected. The migrant labourers, who worked here, have been running from pillar to post for their survival in the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. As each pillar was made, the labourers could be seen dangling, putting their lives at risk for this infrastructural marvel as the empire extended and buildings and graves were demolished.

One of these pillars required to dig the edges of our community graveyard too, where skeletons were unearthed. Both the workers and the officers talked about spirits choking them at night and scaring them each morning as they would start the work again.

Many times, we could see them arranging havans and langars, even giving money to local shrines as chadhawa, to ensure their work remains unhindered and the project is completed on time.

Some of these labourers lost their limbs, and a few died in the process of completion of this project. They, however, managed to finish the long-drawn project and gave the Indian Railways a vital bridge, nothing less than a wonder, to connect Qazigund with the already laid Anantnag-Baramula line inaugurated by the former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh.

This extended line too was to be inaugurated by a former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a much-celebrated way, as had been made evident by the stage preparations. People from my village had thronged to the chosen place, which is located close to a security barrack, housing the paramilitary forces, overlooking the village.

The surroundings were braced with decorations, and red carpets were laid. People were queued and seated in a disciplined manner to get a glimpse of that historical and proud moment for both the Indian Railways, and IRCON, the company which completed the project.

But rains poured down heavily, and the much-awaited and highly anticipated inauguration got cancelled.

Later on, we were told that the premier did it mid-air, in his aircraft, an incident, the truthfulness of which is unknown and continues to remain a joke in the village.

The labourers though, I remember a few of them, showed extraordinary strength in hardships. Going to school, I remember them repairing and welding our bicycles, and playing cricket in the orchards.

Today, as the COVID-19 crisis looms, the plight of migrant labourers in India worsens with each passing day. The apathy the state shows towards these people who worked hard on such development projects makes one reflect upon how the oppressed masses have been discounted by the state. The loss of their livelihood, shelters, and their future employment prospects in the metropolitan cities has not moved the authorities. It exposes the indifferent attitude that the ruling regimes have adopted towards these people standing last in the queue of human development.

While the environment and the native way of living is the least of concerns in such projects, doesn’t this raise a question over the growth and development trajectory which the countries in the subcontinent have taken?

The change from being an agrarian economy to the services-sector-fed one doesn’t seem to pay dividends while nation builders are oblivious. The masses stand excluded from reaping the fruits of their labour, let alone the development, even at the zenith of these trajectories.

These trajectories are starkly biased against the poor and towards the rich. These people from the bottom of the development ladder move from their native villages to towns and cities in search of bread and butter, are promised opportunities of employment and better facilities of health and education.

But the fruits of their labour, this bridge, that wreaked havoc to the environment and native villages here, will be enjoyed by a different class of people, and be used to serve military purposes.

And what about the class that built it? While they may come back from their native villages, what does the future hold for them at either of these places in the COVID world?

How will the governments convince them to return to live on the the flimsy edge, like the one they have been exposed to in this global crisis.

How relevant are these places of death and dollar today to these people or the farms they have left behind a long ago to cater to these pull factors of ‘development’.

Till the time there are answers, the loud trains will continue to disturb my sleepy village, and the river flowing silently beneath it.


Masood Wani is a Bachelor in Technology from Islamic University of Science and Technology. 


Free Press Kashmir is now on Telegram. Click here to Join

Click to comment
To Top