Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sweeping a Change for the Better

Nusrat introduces a person who changed the life of those at the very bottom of the social ladder

Giving Voice to Voiceless

Nusrat Ara

Ghulam Hassan Sheikh (40) began everyday the same way. He picked up his twig broom and set out to clean the streets of Srinagar.

Sheikh worked as a sweeper in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), an organization responsible for cleaning the city streets here. Sheikh spent his life working 12 hours a day - from 7 am to 7 pm - with only a short break in the afternoon. Sheikh and the other sweepers worked every holiday. They worked when they were ill.

Early in the morning as people start for the day, Sheikh was already on work, sweeping the streets with his broom, and cleaning sewers with broom and shovel. He has to keep the open drains alongside streets carrying toilet and kitchen waste running, so that they don’t spill over. It may not be the best way to start a day, taking in dust, picking up shit, and stressing ones back, but for Sheikh this is the way to start the day.

They even worked during the Muslim festival of Eid. Sheikh says he earned Rs 350 per month for the hard, menial labour of cleaning streets.

That was more than 20 years ago. Today, the world of a street sweeper looks much different, thanks to the persistence of one man who worked for decades to establish the first ever Street Sweepers Union, founded in 1970s.

The street sweepers at the SMC say one man is responsible for those changes - Sheikh Mohammad Syed. Syed- though not a sweeper himself, founded the Municipal Workers Union in 1993 and fought for the rights of sweepers.

At the bottom of social strata, sweepers live difficult lives. Until Syed launched the Municipal Workers Union in 1993 more than 1,400 sweepers were temporary or contract laborers who had no employee rights or benefits. Sweepers were fired for being late or absent for work for just one day without finding and paying for their own replacements. At work, they had no facility or even a place to sit in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation premises.

With Syed as their leader, the sweepers of Srinagar strengthened their union to begin to press administration for reforms.


Syed, 54, belonged to a business family and joined the SMC as junior assistant in 1979 after finishing his secondary school. Syed was popular among his colleagues and quickly became a part of the union and was soon elected president of Municipal Employees Union in 1981.

“I fought hard on various issues, led strikes and was even arrested” says Syed.

“I was warned by my colleagues and officers not to take up their issues. They said that I was creating a problem for them,” says Syed, who braved opposition from the staff, administration as well as his relatives who feared that he would also be associated with the sweeper class.

All the members of the union hail Syed for bringing about a change in the system as well as them. “He has been a teacher, a trainer who has guided us so far. Whatever we can do now or have achieved so far is because of him” says Ghulam Mohd Solina, the current president of the union. Solina says that because Syed did not belong to their class, his participation was always a source of strength for their movement.

“They had no organization," Syed says of the sweepers. "They used to gather at the gate of the SMC office and the clerks and officers treated them like untouchables and didn’t allow them to stand near them in the office. Sitting on a chair was a distant dream," he says. Syed formally took charge of the group in 1993.

Syed built the union from the ground up and quite literally had to start from scratch. First, he secured an office room in the premises of the SMC located in the business district in the heart of Srinagar City for the union, where they could sit, take breaks and manage union affairs.


Two years after the union was formed, Syed and the other workers took on the largest issue of all – compensation.

Realizing that poverty was the major issue hindering the social and educational progress of the sweepers. So Syed set to work lobbying for the regularization of their services with the government, knowing he could then secure them better wages and financial securities.

The sweepers union took up the issue with officials in the state government. After nearly a year of agitations and strikes in 1986, the government passed an order granting permanent status to all contingent employees of the state, including some 800 sweepers.

Regularization brought benefits of a decent salary, a small medical allowance, holiday vacations, maternity leave, pension and other benefits previously granted to other state employees.


Health issues remained a major concern as the sweepers work in harsh conditions and are prone to physical injury since they lacked protective gear and respiratory and skin disease.

In 1991 year, the union began its efforts to secure uniforms, gloves, masks and boots for the sweepers. With little resistance workers were soon outfitted with the protective gear they had longed for. “The union ensures that whatever is supplied is of good quality” says Solina.

The union was even able to negotiate a weekly check up for all sweepers at a special health center that was opened for them in the municipality building. Unfortunately, the health center is now defunct due to high staff turnover and internal misuse.


After much success over the last decade, Syed and Union took on one more major issue – education.

The rate of literacy among the sweepers was traditionally very low. As union Chairman Syed began encouraging education for sweepers and their children. “I helped them in getting scholarships from the Social Welfare Department. There were people coming to me and saying, don’t do this. You are creating a problem. If they get educated we will have a dearth of sweepers soon.” says Syed

“A sweeper never got any promotion earlier even if they were educated. Today a sweeper has reached to the level of a ward officer” says Solina, adding that this too has been made possible only by the efforts and guidance of Syed.

According to the Health Officer of SMC Dr Reyaz Ahmad the Srinagar city spread over 330 square kilometers has a population of 1.4 million. The city produces 400 metric tons of solid waste daily which is cleaned by 2200 sweepers against a requirement of 6000.

Ahmad has positive words for the union. “The sweepers are committed and work very hard. Then union has succeeded in bringing a positive change in them as well as their conditions.”

There still are problems, like the health hazards of their job, consistently overlooked by the government and the union is fighting.

Though officials say sweepers are provided safety measures, the former cite lack of basic things like gloves, masks and brooms with long handles. Short handled brooms, they say have caused disc problems to many of them.

Still, the life has changed for better for the sweepers of Srinagar. “We have land, houses and can get loans from the banks as well” says a smiling Fayaz admitting that they weren’t aware of their rights earlier. Still, all seem to agree on one thing – their rights and new livelihoods are dependent on the union.

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