Minors turn pony walas, earn Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 in a day
By: Ahmad Shabir
Pahalgam: As the children along with their parents are enjoying bathing and water fight in the Lidder waters inside the picturesque Betab Valley in Pahalgam, a child carrying a stick in his hand approaches a tourist couple convincing them to take a horse ride.
He informs them about the charges to be paid for the horse ride per person. The couple agrees to take the horse ride along with their two children. Arif rushes towards three other men (Ponny wallas) and tells them to bring their horses as well. All of them bring their horses close to the tourists. The child offers shoulder one of the children of the couple to help him get on to the saddle of the horse. After making him sit comfortably he holds the rope tied to the horse’s neck and heads towards the spot he was supposed to take the rider to. Holding the horse by his rope as he wades through the waters of Lidder with his rider, the scene caught the attention of the people around. “Both of these children will be of same age. One has come to enjoy and another is engaged in labor. I wonder how his parents are allowing this child to do this kind of job. At home I cannot even allow my grandchildren of his age to go out on the road alone. This is cruelty on him,” said an elderly man, Nazir Ahmad from Shopian who had come to enjoy the weekend in Pahalgam along with his family.
Another man present around, however said that this cruelty is being committed on these children by their parents. “No doubt authorities too are insensitive towards the issue of child labor but how come a father can engage such a kid in this kind of labor. The terrain they take these tourists to for horse ride is very tough. It is very risky even for healthy young people to walk through the terrain,” he said.
As the child after crossing the river disappeared in the willow trees along with his horse and rider, another child almost of the same age appeared with a stick in his hand. Unaware that we were discussing the child labor he approached us and tried to convince us for horse ride. “Baya will you take horse ride. Ride is from this spot to water fall. You will enjoy. Horse has to cross Lidder river at two places. Charges are only 150,” the child informs.
On refusal by everyone he left and approached other tourists motivating them to take a ride. Half an hour after the boy returned along with his rider, I approached him the way as if I was intending to take the ride. “What is your name and age and don’t you go to school,”? I asked the child.
“Mae chu naw Arif Ahmad Shiekh (My name is Arif Ahmad Shiekh) and I study in class 6th,” he replied.
He said that he comes to this spot only after the school gets off and on holidays to earn some money.”Both me and my father have our own horses. Some days I earn Rs 2000 while on some days earning is only Rs 1000 to Rs 1100,” Arif told me.
As I engaged him in talks and started clicking his picture with a team of horses, another child from the back signaled him that his video was being shot. Learning about me taking his video, Arif got nervous and pointed towards other children sitting on the other side of the steel fence engaging in labor.
“I am not only one here with my horse. All these children do it. Look at that boy. His name is Sameer Ahmad. He studies in class 6 and comes here almost every day,” Arif said.
As soon as I focussed my mobile camera towards other children apparently between the age of 12 to 17 all of them ran away inviting the attention of young and middle aged aged ponny wallas.
A young man (ponny walla) soon after these boys ran away from the spot came and tried to convince me that this job is not a daily routine by these boys even as he cited the continuous closure of schools as the reason for their engaging in these jobs. “They don’t come here every day. It is only on holidays and after schools get closed. By the way schools are virtually closed. They open for two to three hours in the morning after which they get bored at home and come here,” the man said.
A local social activist, Mushtaq Pahalgami said that children are engaged in labor in almost all the villages of Pahalgam. “These children should have been in schools but it pains to see them with horses and other places doing labor. I had many a time highlighted this issue but authorities never seemed to be serious about stopping the child labor here,” Pahalgami said.
No matter, tourism gives livelihood to thousands of families of the area but it should never have been at the cost of education of children.
“It is a joint effort by tourism and labor department to curb this. These children are our resource but we are losing them to tourism which authorities must wake up to,” Pahalgami told Precious Kashmir.
A local teacher, Tasleem Arif, however , said that the child labor at the tourist spot has been going on for decades. “Lot of students now above 18 have left their studies to earn money. And scores of others studying in primary or lower middle classes spend most of the time in other jobs,” Arif said.
Arif last year went door to door and begged the parents of many children having left the school for ponny labor to send them back to school.
Though parents assured that their children will return to school but Arif said ‘none of them came back. “All of them were in 6th or 7th standard,” Arif said.
He said that he also raised the issue of child labor in Pahalgam during a police-public meet but nothing was done.