Friday, October 14, 2011

The slum dwellers

Have we forgotten about these ill-fated people?


Following the control of the militancy and return of peace in Kashmir, many people after having spent up to 20 years in exile, settled in urban centre such as Srinagar. They did so mainly for economic reasons – homelessness, lack of job opportunities, lack of accessibility to basic social services and other support infrastructure in their places of origin. Heavy fighting between Indian security forces and militants in as distant places of the valley as North Kashmir, South Kashmir, and central Kashmir brought a scare to the population. People had to leave their homes behind. Families that escaped the conflict usually lost someone from their family. Roughly half of others that settled in the upper reaches of hills were evicted from the mud houses and tents. Due to growing rents in Srinagar city, many families were left with no choice but put up tents in various locations, or to occupy public buildings. In the beginning of this year in Srinagar alone there were at least 31 informal settlement sites with close to 3,000 families dwelling in them, although the number could well be much higher, as tracking population on move in Kashmir is a difficult task. Amongst the most deprived and marginalized urban groups in Srinagar are the Internally Displaced People, recent returnees and deportees. These inhabitants of valley live on the roadsides nearby Dal Lake, and river Jhelum in and around Srinagar city, or on the hillsides surrounding Srinagar, like 70% of this city. Nearly three-quarters of them is chronically malnourished, almost 25% acutely and 15% severely. It is especially harsh if you are a child or an unaccompanied elder. 40% of children does not survive till their 5th birthday. It’s worse than in rural areas of Kashmir. Elders perish unnoticed. People find it very difficult to feed themselves. More than 90% of population of slums has no any regular source of income with almost no work available in winter and some in other seasons. When work is available, casual labourer receives between 100 and 200 labour payments per day and most of them do labour work in brick kilns and sand collection from the dal lake. Many families rely on the income sending their women to beg on streets of Srinagar. Up to a quarter of families rely on minors begging on streets, collecting cans and other items from city garbage, polishing shoes, doing other odd jobs or who are smoke peddlers. Such children earn on average Rs.300-400 a month, which is often a difference between life and starvation. There is not much interest of local authorities to assist as they are afraid of accepting urban ghettos. But since there is no other place people can go, with influx of new people the situation gets worse every year. There are a few humanitarian organizations working in the settlements, but with all good that is done it does also have its negative consequences. With people so much dependent for their survival on help from others, every assistance increases their dependency on aid community like save the children etc. And majority of that community does not go into settlements, for various reasons. Inside settlements you see victims of situation that is beyond their ability to cope with, so inhumanely treated with ignorance every passing day. Those that were attacked during militancy, that had to run, were then forgotten by the same world that caused it – and it does not matter whether it was a bullet fired by security forces, or by militants. Those that beg on streets freezing in harsh Kashmir’s winters look at BMWs on the streets and through bullet-proof glass, onto the responsible people that turn their eyes away. Who would like to look at a dirty Burqa, with a child, its colour of black , that knocks on the door, begging for help?

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