‘Underpaid and Socially Outcast’: The Plight of Sheikh Sanitation Workers in Kashmir

In the valley, Sheikh or Watal is often used as a derogatory term.
‘Underpaid and Socially Outcast’: The Plight of Sheikh Sanitation Workers in Kashmir
Photo: Kashmir News Zone

Srinagar: Nestled in the picturesque valley of Kashmir, surrounded by snow-clad mountains and verdant plains, lies a community often marginalized and overlooked — the underprivileged sweeper community. This group, known as the Sheikh community, has long been integral to maintaining sanitation, yet their struggles and stories remain largely unheard.

Mohammad Ayyub Sheikh, a 43-year-old sanitation worker from Tangbagh area of Eidgah in Srinagar, notes that approximately 20-25% of the valley’s population belongs to this community and works as sanitation workers. Despite their vital role, they face persistent challenges as a result of societal pressures and alleged governmental neglect.

“Most of us work tirelessly as daily wagers, earning a meager salary of Rs 9,000-10,000,” he laments. “This is insufficient to meet essential needs such as food, expenses on education, accessing healthcare or saving for emergencies.”

He explains that even those who manage to save modest sums often lose their financial stability in later years due to prolonged exposure to waste, which makes them susceptible to diseases.

Other sweepers share similar grievances, particularly regarding the alleged lack of attention from the government and concerned department. They highlight the shortage of essential sanitation supplies, such as masks and gloves, and the lack of regular medical check-ups and necessary medications.

“Even after dedicating two decades to this job, if we fall ill, we are fired and new appointments are made,” adds one of Ayyub’s friends, who requested anonymity.

Their day begins at 4 am with morning prayers, followed by cleaning their designated areas and reporting to their offices by 9 am. Their workday extends late into the evening, and they face difficulties in obtaining emergency leave or holidays during festivals like Eid.

Most sanitation workers from the Sheikh community reside in Watal Colony, a crowded area in Srinagar’s downtown. The term “Watal” refers to those who are traditionally engaged in professions such as cobbling, cleaning, sweeping, etc., while “Sheikh” as a suffix denotes economically disadvantaged people in menial occupations. These sweepers, who ensure the valley’s cleanliness, often struggle with basic needs like adequate sanitation, electricity and clean water in their residential areas.

Discrimination and social stigma are significant issues for the community. Hailing from Srinagar’s Hawal area, Razia, 30, highlights that the life expectancy of sweepers is about half that of the general population due to their work conditions. She emphasizes the lack of recognition from those they serve, with some viewing them as untouchable, despite the fact that the waste they clean originates from their homes.

She recounts an incident where a sweeper was wrongly accused of theft while collecting waste, leading to higher authorities instructing them to avoid entering households directly. This has resulted in complaints of negligence against them.

Razia had joined the Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Corporation a decade ago as a contractual sanitation worker. As promised by the then government, she is awaiting regularization of her employment.

The civic body has around 500 permanent sanitation workers and approximately 3,000 sweepers who are working on contractual basis. Despite having the same nature of job, there is great disparity in their payments. While permanent employees draw somewhere between Rs 30,000-40,000 per month in addition to other benefits, those who are employed on contract get a maximum of Rs 11,000 following deductions.

The sanitation workers also allegedly face physical violence over trivial disputes, simply because some individuals feel entitled to oppress them.

In terms of marriage, there is some progress with inter-caste marriages being accepted within the community, though discrimination still exists. Despite societal views, Ayyub and others hold the belief that in the eyes of God, everyone is equal, transcending caste or social status.

Women play a significant role in the community, managing household chores and their professional duties. Forty-six-year-old Rashida Begum, a mother of four, underscores the importance of women in maintaining cleanliness, especially in hospitals. Despite facing persistent discrimination, such as being segregated at weddings, these women are proud of their contributions and aspire for their children to have better lives and the respect they deserve.

Credit: The Kashmir Monitor
Credit: The Kashmir Monitor

For the children of the Sheikh community, accessing education is a formidable challenge due to financial constraints and societal barriers. Many are forced to drop out of school to support their families, perpetuating a cycle of illiteracy and limited opportunities.

Despite these adversities, the community maintains a sense of dignity and pride in their work. Ayyub reflects, “We are just as crucial to society as any other professionals. Without us, city life would suffer. We are grateful to God for being chosen to serve society, and we believe that, eventually, people will recognize our worth and respect us.”

This resilience and pride in their essential work serve as a testament to the community’s strength and unwavering dignity.

Kashmiri Muslims and their Caste Hierarchies

Contrary to the belief has no significance in Kashmir’s Muslim-majority society, particularly in the Valley, the reality is quite different and intricate. Noted Kashmiri sociologist and former head of Kashmir University’s sociology department, late Bashir Ahmed Dabla, elaborates on this complexity in his book titled ‘Directory of Caste in Kashmir’.

According to him, there is a misguided belief among some individuals and groups that caste does not function as a social institution in this society. However, this does not reflect the true social reality. In fact, caste operates as a significant social institution in Kashmiri society.

He points out that even though caste in Kashmir does not conform to the traditional Hindu varna (class) system, it remains highly significant.

In his book, which is likely the only academic work focused on caste in Kashmir, Dabla explores the complex nature of social orders in the region. He categorizes Kashmiri castes into three groups. At the top is the ‘Syed’ caste — which has Shah, Bhukhari, Hamdani, Qadri, Andrabi, Jeelani, Geelani and others as surnames.

Syeds claim to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammad’s family and are believed to have come to Kashmir from Central Asia in the early 14th century to spread Islam.

They are followed by ‘occupational castes’, which include surnames like Ahangar, Khandey, Naqash, Bhat, Zargar, Wani, Lone, etc. While Syeds represent the various tribes they belong to, ‘occupational castes’ are identified by the professions they or their ancestors pursued.

For example, Zargar means goldsmith in Kashmiri — indicating that the bearer of this surname is either currently in this profession or descended from a family of goldsmiths.

At the bottom of the caste hierarchy are ‘service castes’, which have surnames such as Sheikh, Bangi, Ganie, Dobi, Sofi, Gilkar, Aaza and Hanjis (people living in houseboats). These groups are generally landless or engaged in occupations considered menial.

It is particularly interesting to note that when Sheikh is used as a prefix, it denotes descent from Brahmin landlords, such as the National Conference leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. However, when used as a surname, it indicates members of the sweeper community.

The influence of caste in Kashmiri society becomes evident during significant social events like marriages. Syeds seldom marry individuals from occupational castes, and similarly, those from occupational castes tend to avoid marrying into service castes.

Wakar Amin, an assistant professor at the Kashmir University’s Department of Social Work, has been quoted by The Wire, explaining that even after converting to Islam in the 14th century, Kashmiri society retained casteist traits from its Hindu past.

During Hindu rule, Brahmins were the knowledge bearers. After Kashmir’s shift to Islam, Syeds assumed this role — gaining prominence and taking key positions in the king’s court and bureaucracy and rendering Brahmins obsolete. Despite their religion grouping them with all other caste groups they had long considered inferior, Syeds preserved certain caste traits — incorporating them into their identity.

Amin notes that while access to education has somewhat diminished these caste divisions over the years, they have not entirely disappeared. He cites the example of the Sheikh community, which remains marginalized in downtown Srinagar.

This community has suffered the most from caste discrimination in Kashmir. They have been confined to the same jobs for generations, to the extent that finding a bride within the Valley has become difficult for them.

“In Kashmiri, Sheikh or Watal is often used as a derogatory term,” said Ayyub.

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