A bus ride from Budgam’s villages in search of daily employment

A bus ride from Budgam’s villages in search of daily employment

A bus ride from Budgam’s villages in search of daily employment

Private buses have become the lifeline of people travelling to Srinagar in search of work, following a fall in prices of carpets they traditionally weaved in their households   

Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir: Placing a lunchbox in his bag, Altaf Ahmad Dar (37) of Mukam in Budgam district walks to the nearby Watrahail bus stand from his home. It is 7 am, and before 9 am he has to be at Hyderpora Chowk where labourers usually assemble to find work for the day.

Dar is an unskilled labourer who goes to Srinagar city for work. The private bus he boarded will leave the village at 7.30 am and reach Hyderpora Chowk in 50 minutes. In the evening, he returns home by the same bus. This has been his daily routine, except on Fridays.

The decline of traditional carpet weaving in the villages of Budgam and the construction boom in Srinagar have made hundreds of such labourers from rural Budgam travel to Srinagar for casual jobs. This shift towards the city for work has given a new impetus to the village bus services, too.

“Around a decade ago, hardly anyone from the villages in Budgam travelled daily to Srinagar,” recalls Majeed Ahmad Sheikh (40), who has been a bus conductor on different bus routes for the last 15 years. The bus has a monthly collection of around Rs 30,000, while Majeed's monthly wages is Rs 8,000. Before becoming a bus conductor, Majeed used to weave carpet in Hukhlatri, his village.

“The state road transport corporation runs only around 250 government buses from Srinagar to semi-urban areas, but we have around 500 buses at Parimpora bus stand and another 500 at Pantha Chowk bus stand located south of Srinagar and other bus stands in North Kashmir. It is the private buses that go to far flung villages,” Mohammad Yusuf, chief administrator, the Western Bus Service Limited, tells 101Reporters.

The office of Western Bus Service (Photo - Mukhtar Dar, 101Reporters)

The Western Bus Service runs around 100 buses to the villages of Budgam alone, and reach even the previously unreachable regions of the Valley. “For the last 70 years, we have been serving transportation in Kashmir,” Yusuf says.

Majeed notes that 90% of the passengers that he gets are labourers who travel to the city for employment. “All the buses that travel through Raiyar, Khan Sahib, Yarkha, Watrahail, Bonit, Hukhlatri and Danas in Budgam have their timings planned according to the schedules of these labourers. Around 6 pm, these buses reach Hyderpora, where labourers will be waiting for it to get back home. The buses halt in the villages from where they are bound to start their journey the next day,” he says.

Majeed knows well that he would have lost his employment if not for these labourers. In fact, it is more a case of interdependence of labourers and bus staff.

Bus leaves from Hukhlatri early in the morning (Photo - Mukhtar Dar, 101Reporters)

The downfall of handicrafts

Around 100 carpet weavers were present in Hukhlatri village, located 27 km from Srinagar, in 2005. Today, hardly anyone does that work. As per the official figures, handicrafts exports from Kashmir dropped to Rs 635 crore in 2020–21 from Rs 1,151 crore in 2016–17, indicating a 44% decline in a short time.

As a result, almost all the labourers associated with Pashmina, carpet weaving and other handicrafts switched to jobs in cities. While skilled jobs such as masonry and carpentry are available in Srinagar, there is also no dearth of unskilled jobs such as serving as helpers of masons.  

Ghulam Nabi Bhat (55), who used to weave carpets at his home in Hukhlatri, tells 101Reporters that he could earn about Rs 700 working from home a decade ago. “Now, we have to go to Srinagar early in the morning to find work, and only make about Rs 500 by the end of the day.”  

It is tough for Ghulam Nabi to do manual labour because he is older now, but he has no other choice to support his family. "There are thousands of artisans like me, whose livelihood got disturbed with the fading away of handicrafts."  

Farooq Ahmad Dar (38) and his brother Bashir Ahmad Dar (44) have been weaving handmade carpets from the age of 15 to earn a livelihood. They then earned Rs 500 to 700 daily, which came down to Rs 300 when the carpet prices crashed.  

Now both brothers work as casual labourers in Srinagar. “We were earning a handsome amount by weaving carpets. However, the introduction of machine-made carpets reduced their prices and began to affect our livelihoods after 2010,” says Farooq.

Labourers going to Srinagar in the bus (Photo - Mukhtar Dar, 101Reporters)

Shared taxis to e-buses

There was a festival-like atmosphere in Hukhlatri, when a private bus, the first bus ever to the place, reached the village in 1989. “Everyone welcomed the bus. It was as if a feast was happening in the village. No one had private vehicles then. The bus making its night halt in the village meant a lot to the villagers. It could be used in case of a health emergency at night,” Bashir Ahmad Bhat (37), a government schoolteacher, tells 101Reporters.  

Bashir says the bus service played a pivotal role, helping him in pursuing college education in Srinagar. “Students paid half the fare. Like me, around 30 students were studying at Bemina College in Srinagar at that time. Almost all of them are in good posts, mostly as teachers. Up to 2010, it was the only transport service that connected our village with Srinagar,” he adds. 

With the introduction of speedy transport services such as shared taxis (locally known as sumos) to the villages and with health and educational facilities improving in rural areas, the importance of bus services does not remain the same anymore in meeting educational or health needs. “Around six sumos operate on this route now. They run fast, so most people prefer it,” says Bashir.

In 2015, the bus to Hukhlatri stopped services as it was not getting enough passengers. Subsequently, Mushtaq Ahmad Sheikh (45) and other labourers from Hukhlatri approached the Western Bus Service office and sought the relaunch of the service.

Labourers started to increasingly travel to Srinagar for work only in 2017. “Around 40 to 50 labourers from Hukhlatri and nearby Ramhuma and Churamujra now take this bus daily. It costs Rs 80 to reach Srinagar in a sumo. But if one takes the bus, it costs only Rs 30,” Mushtaq tells 101Reporters.  

However, private transporters have been facing challenges since 2017, when the private bus stand in Batmaloo was shifted to Parimpora in a bid to decongest the city. “Batmaloo bus stand stood in the heart of Srinagar and could be easily accessed by everyone. But the new place is five km from the city’s main area. Hardly anyone comes here. Nowadays, we only pick passengers from roadsides on the outskirts of Srinagar,” he details. 

Majeed claims that the 5 pm buses from Parimpora hardly get any passengers until it crosses Bemina. Labourers start boarding these buses bound for various villages in Budgam — Raiyar, Khanshab, Yarkha, Watrahail, Bonit, Watrahail, Hukhlatri and Danas, to name a few — at Tengpora, Hyderpora, Humhuma and Ompora. It takes an hour for the bus to reach Hyderpora from Parimpora.

“Passengers would have preferred to board the bus from the main areas of Srinagar, such as Batmaloo, Lal Chowk and Jahangir Chowk, rather than from Parimpora. As a result, we are suffering losses,” says Yusuf. He thinks the administration has a step-motherly attitude towards private transporters. Despite the court order that all transport buses should run from Parimpora, government buses and other vehicles continue to ply from Srinagar’s main area.  

Yusuf says the government recently allowed e-buses to operate from Srinagar to Budgam, which has affected the livelihood of transport operators further. “We protested against it, but the government remains unmoved.” 

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

Cover Photo - Labourers at Hyderpora chowk (Photo - Mukhtar Dar, 101Reporters)


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