“Modi talks about self-sufficient India but in Kashmir, they are doing opposite,” 15000 engineers jobless after govt abolishes SHG scheme

By Shakir Mir

Srinagar: Hilal Rasool (now 45) was a young engineering graduate in 2003 when Kashmir was starting to emerge out of a decade of experience with insurgency and civil disturbance. Militancy was waning and a new brand of politics was surfacing: one of ‘healing wounds’ and ramping up development. It was in this context Hilal, in pursuit of stable employment, enlisted himself in a Self Help Group of engineers that managed to negotiate an agreement with the government. As per the unwritten deal, a portion of government works would be allocated to this group of 4000 engineers.

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“We had first sought to reinstate an old policy where a monthly stipend would be disbursed to us,” he said. “But later we figured out that this agreement worked well. We got a better deal.”

For the next 18 years, the engagement deepened and the membership of Self Help Group of Engineer’s Association (SHGEA) grew to 15,000 in 2020. In executing the works allocated by the government, the group would also rope in masons, labourers, drivers, plumbers, Shikara rowers and carpenters, thus expanding a net of informal employment opportunities to a vast multitude.

Hilal’s Miyashah Construction Company profited due to this policy enacted during the first term of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed as Chief Minister in 2003 and given a formal shape during PDP’s second term in 2017. His brother Irfan Rasool (38) – also an engineer – also found employment in the family firm and did very well.

However, on 10 August last month, the gubernatorial administration of Kashmir issued a directive to subsume engineering wings of 15 government departments under one single department of Public Works. One of the clauses enshrined in the new order reads: “The practice of reserving a proportion of projects for Self Help Groups of Engineers is abolished forthwith.”

The issue has since triggered fierce protests in J&K where authorities have been apprehensive about all form of gatherings and have swiftly moved to curb them. Last week, the group of protesting engineers were bundled into police vans and later released. On Wednesday, Rajya Sabha MP and former J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also raised the matter in the Parliament during the monsoon session.

For Hilal and 15,000 engineers who benefited from the policy, the order has struck like a thunderclap. In one fell swoop, all of them have been turned jobless. “We wriggled out hands in anxiety,” said Syed Parvaiz, president of SHGEA J&K. “We couldn’t figure out what to worry about first: The loans we had to repay or the employment which was taken away from us.”

It’s been more than two years that J&K has not had an elected administration. In July 2018, BJP pulled a plug on an alliance with PDP causing the government to collapse. The former state came under governor’s rule and later under Presidential rule. In the hindsight, the withdrawal from coalition now appears to have been calculated ahead of the abrogation of article 370 in August the following year. It was the Governor, loyal to BJP, who consented for the abrogation on J&K’s behalf.

As part of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019, the Union Territory is witnessing a comprehensive rejig. Former institutions like regional wings of women, children and human rights commissions stand de-operationalised. Under new arrangements, fresh power niches are being carved out. New rules pertaining to domicile rights have been promulgated. Recently the government also ended the 131-year-old reign of Urdu as the sole official language in J&K.

It was in this context that Srinagar Civil Secretariat’s General Administration Department (GAD) issued the latest order – also filed under the subject of ‘Reorganisation of engineering staff’.

The move to forfeit this policy which renders 15,000 people jobless and impacts employment opportunities for an unknown number of people working informally has come at a time when the Modi government boasts ushering in unprecedented development in J&K. The emphasis on development has been a defining theme of BJP’s Public Relations blitzkrieg as it scrambles to justify the abrogation of article 370 which has left the bulk of the population in Kashmir sullen and resentful. Already, granting outstation bidders access to mineral resources in Kashmir have left local extractors miffed.

Parvaiz has since been frequenting one office after another to extract a word from the government but to no avail. As per Parvaiz, while officials from the Labour and Employment Department of J&K have been “sympathetic” to their contentions, “even they were taken by surprise because they did not expect such a move.”

Parvaiz was one among the founding members of the Self Help Group. He had escalated the demands with the PDP government in 2003. “This deal was the product of our exhaustive meetings with then R&B minister Qazi Afzal,” he said.

Till 2006, the group could only execute a maximum Rs 5 lakh worth of work from the government. That quota was expanded by 30 % in 2008 during the PDP-Congress coalition at the intervention of Muzaffar Hussain Beigh who was the Deputy Chief Minister of J&K then.

In 2010, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had taken the initiative of spelling out formal guidelines of the scheme which were finally approved by the State Cabinet in 2017. By this time, the cap was increased from Rs 5 lakhs to Rs 1.25 crores. “There was also a provision of furnishing Performance certificate and if we aced the cap on the worth of work allotted could be increased further,” Parvaiz said.

The first work allotted to him was the construction of three blocks of buildings in government school Pampore. He never looked back after that. “We got immersed into this work,” he said.

Before the revocation of this scheme, these engineers were waiting for approvals from the government for setting up macadam plants so that the work of macadamization of the roads is also outsourced to them for which they are not entitled yet.  But instead of being greeted by the ‘good news’, they were in for an unmitigated shock.

As per Department of Labour and Employment J&K, a total 1098 SHGs have been registered under it till 2019-20 involving 4664 engineers and a total 2445 number of works have been allotted to them worth approx Rs 2.5 crores.

Javaid Ahmad Rangrez (44) who heads Hope Consultants and Engineers has not been able to sleep soundly since the decision was announced. “How long before our savings diminish significantly?” he asked. “How will I pay the school fee of my children and feed my family of seven? I am the lone breadwinner?”

Rangrez enlisted with SHGA J&K in 2006. “We were not even consulted before this big step was executed,” he said. “My current investment into the projects related to constructions of roads and community halls is worth Rs 50 lakh and there’s been no word from the government about this.”

Many engineers also have invested in high tech state of the art equipment which now lies unused. “We don’t know what to do with them,” said Hilal who has been executing the works allotted by Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA). His work involves de-weeding the highly polluted Dal Lake and relocating the extracted weed detritus to authorised dumping sites.

J&K government spokesperson Rohit Kansal did not respond to calls.

Both traditional parties NC and PDP have taken a serious note of this matter and questioned the administration’s intention behind the move. “The government is being run at the whims and fancies of bureaucrats who are not even elected,” said Imran Nabi Dar, NC spokesperson. “This arbitrary reshuffling is hurtful to Kashmiris and doesn’t serve any purpose other than that of collective punishment.”

PDP spokesperson alleged that the J & K administration was “appeasing a certain section of construction mafia.”

“This scheme provided employment to most professional engineers. 5 engineers banded together to form one group and this association was an amalgamation of several groups,” said PDP’s Waheed ur Rehman. “Now the construction works would be outsourced to amateurs with no professional degrees. This move is aimed at creating more anxiety and pressure in Kashmir. They are not letting go of this chokehold placed since August last year.”

More ironically, Labour Department J&K released a coffee table book just days after abolishing the scheme. The book, accessed by this reporter, boasts about the achievements from collaboration with Self Help Groups. In fact, the mention of works executed by SHGs run into several pages. “We don’t really understand what prompted them to repeal this scheme then?” Parvaiz asks. “PM Modi talks about atma-nirbhar (self-sufficient) India but in Kashmir, they are doing just the opposite. Some engineers are so tormented by this move than they are contemplating self-immolation. That’s the situation in which the government has put us.”

The engineers are worried they might not be able to find employment else as they have crossed the age bar. “I dedicated 15 years of my life to this work,” Rangrez said. “Where do I go from here? Had we known this was a temporary arrangement we would have relocated to some other state or country for work when we were young.”

Shakir Mir is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He has reported previously for Times of India. His work has appeared in The Wire, Firstpost, Caravan Magazine and TRT World. He tweets at @shakirmir.