How Bakarwals are braving the pandemic

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By Firdous Khan


At a time when almost entire world is in the middle of Corona Virus crisis and all sources of physical connectivity be it local, national or international have been partially or completely broken.

It is a time when people who used to be on thier toes due to busy schedules, moving every now and then in chartered planes and luxury cars have been zeroed in at their residential places.

The Pandemic has left people restless, confined to homes and subsequently altering their ways of life.
It is a time of physical distance, wearing masks has become a norm, the ways of greeting has changed, people have been advised by health experts to maintain good health and hygiene and eat food that increases Immunity against the lethal disease of Corona Virus which has already silenced lakhs of people throughout the world.

Most of the people who were outside, away from their loved ones have now been allowed to return after more than three months but have to go through a mandatory quarantine period (in some states including in the UT of J&K) till their Covid test reports are prepared and if reported negative are allowed to move home, thereby advised to follow strict 14 day home quarantine period. However, if reported positive, the affected person is hospitalized.

In these devastating times, what happened to the “Children of lesser God” , as they prefer to call themselves. The nomadic tribe of Gujjars and Bakarwals mostly residing in the Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir who spend their lives in different circumstances, away from the hustle and bustle of common masses in far off places to feed cattle, their only source of livelihood.

How they are coping up with the Corona Pandemic, and what it meant to them. How they comprehend the term ‘Social distancing? Does any govt agency reached them? Or were they left on their own fate? What about their daily necessities and have their clans been allowed to move this year for the routine annual migration from Rajouri ( in Jammu) to Kashmir for better livelihood.

Ab Rashid Khattana’s is one such family, sitting in his recently established dimly lit tent on a dusty, somewhat greasy foam, resting his back on a pile of clothes, the 65 year old, turban laden Khattana says, “I heard the news about Corona Virus from my radio set three months ago. At that time He was in his hometown Nowshera, a frontier town in district Rajouri.
Khattana is not bothered by Covid-19. “We Muslims believe in our lord, He has bestowed this life to us and He is the only one who will take it away and i interpret this disease as God’s curse on humans” , says 60 year old frail khattana, making his words more appealing and portraying himself as a staunch believer in God. He added that he heard of disease having emerged from China.
Khattana’s clan comprises of around 50 members in total. Among them, 15 are children, four men including Khattana are in their 60’s, some are as young as 30 and few females are accompanying them to the valley this year.
“We have been migrating to Kashmir valley with our flock (mostly horses) since the days of my childhood,” Says long bearded Khattana. They begin their annual journey in the month of April, criss crossing slopes, daring harsh weather on foot to reach Kashmir valley. But this year the story is totally different. The Corona Pandemic has forced them to work as daily wage labourers.
” Earlier We used to move to Baltal with our horses to ferry tourists for the annual amarnath yatra but this year due to restrictions because of Corona Virus, we decided to move towards the villages to work as daily wage labourers, says 35-year-old Mubeen in a sad tone. Now they are looking for work in this and adjoining villages and are hopeful to get work offers soon.
How khattana and his clan reached the valley this year? Was it normal or more daunting due to covid-19, because no one was allowed to move by the government except people who were involved in supply of essential services. Was their any difficulty for them to get their passes, as they need them to enter into the Kashmir valley? But surprisingly Khattana says, “We easily got the passes like we used to get earlier without any hindrance.” They were allowed to move smoothly by the authorities. “There was nothing about the corona Virus the authorities could tell us to be aware about back in Rajouri,” Says Khattana. “We were not even provided masks once we leave our places in Rajouri nor any health team tested us before we left except a thermal screening test was done at the Qazigund, the gate way town to Kashmir Valley and here officials told us to take care of our health and verbally guided us about the disease.” a patient nomad says.
A group led by Khattana reached Srinagar last month on foot. Children as young as 5 years were part of this arduous journey of about 300kms and spent about 20 days their but decided to move towards villages for two reasons, one there is alot of work to do on daily basis in villages and their families have not to worry about defecation in open, as they are following this practice from generations because of the lack of toilets in places they use to stay. So they answer the nature’s call in open even when the present govt at centre is promising open defecation free india.
At present these Pastoralists have settled at Thindma kreeri, a small hamlet in Baramulla district on a small hill. About 15 tents of Khattana’s clan are dotting this lush green landscape most of which accommodate their family members and some occupied by goats( though only a few in number).
As the conversation gained momentum more and more individuals from the Khattana’s clan came to make their point. One, Ghulam-Ud-Din a bearded bakarwal in his 50s says, “Have u heard of any bakarwal being affected by this disease, we have experienced and endured much worse than this”. He concluded impressively.
Khattana and his clan for sure is not much bothered about the contagious disease because they lack proper knowledge about the disease as not a single individual this reporter spoke to, was able to talk about this Virus deeply and how dangerous it can be for them. And two because their life brings challenges every day.
The Corona Virus has till date already killed more than 14k people in india and the tally has surpassed more than 90 in the UT of J&K. And the numbers are rising with each passing day but presently this nomadic family is more interested in getting their job, earn something so as to support their families and return back to their home places.
“We were not even tested for the Covid Virus”, says a smiling Mohammed Taj. “We don’t even believe these things, Hum to fakir aadmi hai, jhola le kay chal dete hai, forcing everyone to smile and giggle and it has now been more than a month since we are here in Kashmir.”
Does this not show the clear apathy of officials who allowed them entry to valley without being tested? What if anyone among them was positive and spread it to the masses? Or does the govt feel they are not important for the society ? Do their lives matter? If yes, why were they not tested?
When this reporter brought these details into the notice of district Nodal Officer Baramulla Fatima Farooq, she told that till date they had no specific guidelines for thier screening.
“We didn’t have any specific guidelines from the administration side for the sampling of this community, she says and added that even persons who travelled from Jammu to Kashmir (that is within the Union territory) were not even tested as is the case with Bakarwals. The reason she cited was the higher footfall of people returning from other states. And regarding awareness of the virus, she assured that the administration has involved members from the Panchayati Raj institutions particularly BDC Chairman’s and their ground level workers who will be accompanied by health experts and conduct door to door awareness programs to apprise the common masses about the disease and the necessary precautionary measures needed to stay safe from the virus.
Although dealing with the Covid Pandemic has not been a cake walk for most of the countries of world and medical scientists have not yet been successful in the development of vaccine but for the illiterate Bakarwals it doesn’t matter much.
Till the time any medical team reaches them(although they don’t crave for it) Rashid Khattana’s clan has now settled here for the next four months with a ray of hope, deep inside thier heart to get work for their own survival and the survival of their loved ones.
(The writer has done his Bachelors in Mass Communication from GDC Baramulla. He can be reached at: [email protected])

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