Since the time of British Raj, the Khans from Kashmir have been literally carrying Shimla’s economy on their backs, delivering heavy loads to destinations inaccessible by transport. A Labour Day special
Although it is difficult to pin point the exact year when the porters from Kashmir, popularly called Khans, first came to Shimla to earn a living, they are known to have been coming from the Valley to this hill-town since the middle of the 19 Century during the British rule.
Today it will not be an exaggeration to say these tall, well-built Khans from Kashmir literally carry the economy of Shimla on their back. Come rain or snow, the Khans can be seen climbing up or racing down the steep hilly path ways carrying heavy loads on their backs to be delivered at places which cannot be accessed by transport.
Achla, who has a furniture shop in Shimla, says that only the Khans can carry heavy furniture items like wooden or steel almirahs, sofas and beds single-handedly. She and other furniture shops owners say that they are assured of the items’ safe delivery. The gas companies also hire the Khans for delivery of cooking gas cylinders.
Local businessmen, wholesale dealers or householders — all have the same opinion about the Khans. “If it is a Khan, one can be very sure that the luggage will be delivered at the right address without any pilferage or harm to the item.”
While some of the Khans get work from certain identified shops on a daily basis others wait for their turn at Cart Road or the railway station.
Forty-year-old Bashir Ahmed from Kulgam in Kashmir came to work in Shimla after his matric exams at the age of 16 with his father who had been working in the town as a porter for almost 25 years. Bashir said he wanted his ageing father to go back to the Valley. Today he and the other Khans earn anything between Rs. 250 to 500 a day and are able to send back home between Rs. 3,000 to 5,000 rupees every month.
Mushtaq Ahmed, who has been coming to Shimla for the last 32 years, says when he had first come here there were hardly any vehicles to be seen and they used to earn quite a lot of money despite the fact that wages in those times were much less. With better transport facility and the increase in the number of porters from Kashmir, it has become tough.
Another Bashir from Anantnag also came to Shimla as a boy. Now at 55, he recalls that when he first came here he used to get just Rs. 2 for carrying luggage from Cart Road to the Mall. Now, of course, it is much more but then everything has become so expensive, he says. Bashir has two sons: one doing his post graduation and the other is in second year in college. He worries that being young, his sons could be misguided by “wrong elements” in the Valley.
Saabzar says that because of trouble in the Valley many like him prefer to work in Shimla, which is both peaceful and its climate is also similar to Kashmir’s.
Mohammed Yunus, a second year student, came to Shimla three months ago. “I will give do my graduation privately as I need to earn money. Because of large scale unemployment, I am not sure whether I will be able to get a job there even if I am educated.” Most of them agreed that it is unemployment and demand of bribes in lakhs for job back home that brings young men here.
Maqsood is a familiar face at the Shimla railway station. He has been working here for nearly three decades now. He even featured in a BBC documentary on the Railways and many visitors from Britain recognise him. Since a lot of foreign visitors come, Maqsood has learnt quite a few sentences in English. “One has to change with the times,” he says.
Since terrorism raised its ugly head in the Valley, the Khans in Shimla are made to undergo police verification. According to police sources, there are over 4,000 porters from Kashmir in Shimla district, many of whom are in the Shimla town. Over 250 Khans stay in the mussafir khana at the Jama Masjid in Lower Bazaar and eat at the nearby dhabas. There are also five labour hostels.