The outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the pandemic it caused continues to haunt people globally. Even after almost one year the situation remains grim. Life became dull and tedious for many months when the national lockdown was announced from March 21st 2020. The situation was subdued across the globe. For me and my colleagues COVID 19 didn’t make us surrender and we fought it with all valour and courage. Maintaining proper COVID 19 protocol we kept working for the public good from our office and on the ground as well.
The word standstill is most often used to describe life during the COVID 19 pandemic. It is usually referred to the world economy. It can also be related to the sedentary lifestyle as people were confined to their homes for several months which continues even now due to closure of schools , colleges and universities. From March to June, for millions of people walking to office involved moving approximately 10 feet as people would work from home and this continues even now in many sectors. For me life was also sedentary for some months, but I utilized the time quite efficiently. I wrote a lot during this time. From March to June I wrote 5000 to 5500 words a week while in routine days it would be maximum 2500 to 3000 words.
Ramadhan in COVID
The holy month of Ramzan began amid COVID 19 pandemic i.e. from April 24th 2020. Due to strict protocol people didn’t go to masjids to offer 5 times prayers (salah). We had also arranged for the prayers at home. My kids seemed enthusiastic as we offered 5- time salah in a congregation led by my father. This was also the time for taking care of the kitchen garden around my house. A friend Iqbal Munshi who has a commercial vegetable nursery at Tangmarg gave me broccoli and lettuce plants. It was a great experience to look after them as we were growing these exotic vegetables for the first time. I also took control of the kitchen during this holy month and remained busy for some hours to prepare Iftari . My kids would also assist me while I would be making different delicacies. They enjoyed it a lot and learnt the art of cooking as well.
Trekking amid COVID
It was around mid-June when I decided to come out of home and go for an outing. I wanted to wander around the pasturelands of Purpanjal. Trekking around meadows and mountains has been my passion for the last 15 years. During my childhood days also I had attended school camps at Aharbal , Yusmarg and some other places. Then there was a big gap in between and I resumed trekking from 2005 onwards. Almost every summer I along with my friends trek to different places located around the foothills of Pir Panjal especially in Budgam district. Hiking in Pir Panjal mountains and cooking under the open sky is my favorite pastime. From June to August I trekked 4 times amid COVID 19. I explored lots of new things and documented the same as well. This was an accomplishment indeed. I kept taking notes and capturing videos during these treks. I wrote a lot about my experience which was published in Greater Kashmir and on other media platforms as well. The videos I made on shepherds, illegal axing of trees inside forests became viral on social media. It had an impact as well. The Principal Chief Conservator Forests (PCCF) had to visit Doodh Ganga forest range himself.
We undertook our first trek amid COVID on June 25th. I carried my sleeping bag , tent and other equipment and joined our trekking leader Mehrajudin Andrabi @ Major at his village Kaich near Raithan Budgam. Some other guys had already reached Doodh Pathri. We started our trek at 8 am and by 12 noon were at our base camp at Corag near Diskhal. I took utmost care to maintain physical distance along with the other ten trekkers. During the 3 day outing, I interviewed many shepherds and wrote three articles on their lifestyle and challenges they face in rangelands. We came back after 3 days. I again left for one more trekking programme on July 11th with some relatives and friends. Major was again leading our group. This time my 9 year old son Ubaidullah was also with us. He was the first to reach Ashtar valley with Major and a few more guys. I have written a detailed travelogue explaining this trip. I went trekking on August 14th once again. This time we were only 6 people. We came back on August 16th. We walked for almost 11 hrs from Doodhpathri to Bargah. This is actually a 9 hr trek but we lost our way in the Liddermud forests. My son was again accompanying us. He wrote his experience in the GK kids page some time back. In October months also i went for a 1 day trekking around Yusmarg area but we had to come back the same day.
Exposing PDS scam
In the month of June we exposed a scam wherein poor consumers were sold ration on exorbitant rates in village Loolipora. This expose helped us to impress upon the Govt to streamline its Public Distribution System (PDS). When the Government was distributing free ration amid COVID 19 pandemic a villager in Bonen village of Chadoora was given less amount of rice by the storekeeper. He got in touch with our local activist Mushtaq Ahmad who after a search on an online portal found the poor was registered as an 8-member family while he was being provided rice for only 7 members. Mushtaq recorded Sonaullah’s statement on his mobile phone and the video was sent to higher officials. The officer suspended the storekeeper, but Mushtaq’s video had by that time gone viral. We started getting calls from other villages. We did a sample survey in another village Loolipora . Mushtaq cross checked some 13 ration cards of Loolipiora. These families had been provided fake ration cards. When the detail was obtained from online data , all these people were actually listed as Below Poverty Line (BPL) or Priority Households (PHH) for more than 4 years. A probe committee was constituted and action was taken against some officials by Secretary food. On June 13th 2020 i had written a detailed piece on this. We held a demonstration on world food day as well in Srinagar. We again exposed a similar scam in the village Tarzoo in Sopore around July end where I went myself. Mushtaq was also with me. We had gone there to see an illegal garbage dump site created near a wetland. I had already written a detailed piece on this issue on June 5th 2020 and our mobilization and legal intervention helped closure of that illegal site as the chief justice visited the site herself after locals filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
Movement on Forest Rights
When the Govt started issuing eviction notices to tribals and traditional forest dwellers plus axing around 10,000 apple trees in Budgam recently , we tried our best to impress upon the Government to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA). This law was extended to J&K in the 2019 post article 370 abrogation but was not being rolled out. During last one month I write six articles in a series to ensure people get updated about FRA. I did a lot of research-based reading on this act. Authorities have rolled out FRA. Lot more has to be done to ensure rightful people get the FRA entitlements. We also worked a lot ensuring affected farmers of Srinagar Ring Road get justice. We were able to get two important high court judgments amid COVID 19.
As people keep complaining that life was halted during COVID, for me it was a year of learning and attainment although not financially, but yes indeed intellectually and conceptually. In Spite of facing tragedies at domestic level, I kept moving on. I want to pay my gratitude to Syed Nasarullah, a senior citizen and our legal advisor who traveled 20kms daily to reach the office amid COVID 19. We kept drafting PIL’s, RTI’s , writ petitions, holding peaceful demonstrations etc for public good. I also appreciate Shafqat Nazir Advocate JK High court for always being there with us during the pandemic and giving us legal help in spite of testing COVID +ve. During the last 10 months we did all that which could have been otherwise accomplished in 2 years of routine time.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder and Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement