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Rajasthani migrants in Kashmir ask ‘What elections!’

May 20, 2019
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Rajasthani migrants in Kashmir ask ‘What elections!’

There are those who dutifully cast their vote and feel smug about being a good citizen. Then there are those who can’t be bothered. Not delinquent but disenfranchised, because of poverty. Rajasthan’s broom makers who have moved to Kashmir for their bread and butter are one such people.

“It’s poverty that compels us to leave our native place and travel hundreds of kilometres every year. Brooms have almost no demand outside Kashmir and we don’t have any other work to do,” said Lahri Bai, 57.

For Lahri Bai, there’s no ink on the finger, just callouses on her hand. Credit: Aamil Ali Bhat

She is from Chittorgarh but has been living along the National Highway in Anantnag district of South Kashmir in a tent made of tattered tarpaulin. She is one of the thousands of migrant workers hailing from the western state. They belong to the Bagariya tribe, which is listed as a Scheduled Caste in their home state. They are fluent only in their local language.

Lahri has come with her son and daughter. Every year in March, hundreds of families like hers take a trip of ~800 km from Rajasthan to Kashmir. They set up tents across the valley in Handwara, Sopore, Srinagar, Pampore and Anantnag, making brooms out of date palm leaves that they bring with them in bulk.

When Rajasthan went to polls on April 29 and May 6, these broom makers were blissfully unaware of the so-called festival of democracy, occupied with their work as usual. 101Reporters met them a couple of days after the second round of voting in their home state. When asked if they were aware of the elections, Sonu Bagariya, 28, thought hard and responded with a despondent “Nahi, bhai.” (No, brother.)

He lamented that his people haven’t received any help from the government, forcing them to travel hundreds of kilometres and live in tough conditions to make a living.”When they don’t care for us, why should we bother about their election,” he proclaimed.

Anger writ large on his face, he said no government officer, be it in Rajasthan or Kashmir, approached them regarding the election. He elucidated that making and selling brooms is what their life revolves around every single day. “Elections mean nothing to us.”  

This correspondent asked them if they knew who the Prime Minister of India or the Chief Minister of their state is. Looking lost, Sonu asked his fellow worker, “Do you know?” Nobody knew.

Explaining their ignorance, Ladu Bagariya, 60, said they had cast votes in previous elections. He said politicians had approached them and sold them hopes, which never materialised. “We are still living the same life. Our only concern always remains how to earn a few hundred rupees and buy food for our kids,” the old man explained.

Lahri said her family earns about ₹200 a day. Every family works outside their tent, with the experienced hands efficiently and painstakingly cutting palm leaves and making brooms out of them. The young ones take the brooms on bicycles to villages, towns and shopkeepers. For every broom sold, they earn a profit of ₹5-10.

One look at the children of these families makes their poverty evident, what with their sunbaked skin and half-naked body. As the elders meticulously go about making brooms, they hang around, getting a hang of the work they’ll need to get adept at to make ends meet as they grow up. For them, education is a far-fetched idea.

Lahri’s children have never been to school. Sonu too has never been to one. He said he had got his younger sister admitted to a government school in Rajasthan but she couldn’t stick around. Twelve now, she is with the family in Kashmir and helps make brooms. Sonu said education, jobs, concrete houses etc are a pipe dream for people like them.

Since 2007, the Bagariyas have been coming to Kashmir every year to make and sell brooms. They work in the valley from March to November, Ladu said. Even when it snows, he adds. They can’t afford to miss even a day’s income. In winters, they go about their work with tattered blankets to protect them from the biting cold. The work goes on unabated in the scorching heat of the summer too.

Living on a hand-to-mouth basis, they are not on the radar of political parties or government authorities. They have come to understand they are on their own. That’s why they have only cuts and callouses from broom-making on their hands, no inked finger for them.

Also read: Rajasthani migrants full of praise for Kashmiris’ bon homie