The lights went out. Again. A man in his mid-forties, Yaqoub, headed to the local mosque, grabbed the microphone, and called on the residents of Pulwama District in Indian-held Kashmir to take to the streets. “It’s enough!” he exclaimed. “We need power! Now!”
The event occurred after Magrib, or sunset prayer, when residents, mostly men, headed for the power station. Together, they walked nearly 2 km or more than a mile.
Murtaza joined nearly three hundred protestors, and told me the story moments ago. “We reached the power station and shouted at the officers on night duty. They said it’s not their fault. They blamed it on load shedding,” a reference to temporarily reducing the supply of electricity to avoid overloading the generators. Simply, load shedding is an electrical power shut down. (I suspect if we, Americans, had to deal with load shedding, there would be public outrage and a national crisis.)
This winter, power has been intermittent. And a royal pain for residents. Last month, the daily Kashmir Times reported, “With the advent of winter, pestering power crisis has hit Kashmir as most parts of the Valley reel under severe electricity shortage with no indication of improvement in the near future. Officials said the power distribution system in Kashmir is under tremendous stress due to overload.” Despite promises made from the Power Development Department (PDD), unscheduled power cuts have made life miserable.
“It’s impossible to live,” Murtaza said, who maintains regular contact with me from the valley.
This morning, his father added, “Winter is the worst time for all of us. There is no problem in the summer months, but in winter, everyone uses more electricity for gas and heat, and this is part of the problem.”
“The Army controls the power,” Murtaza told me. “The world has gone to the moon but in Kashmir, we don’t even have basic things like power and water.”
At the power station, young men marched. They demanded the station be shut down. “There’s no use in having it open until the lights come back on,” Murtaza asserted. Station workers told the angry mob they were innocent, and proved to residents that electricity was sporadic, at best. “Power comes on for fifteen minutes, then goes out again. That’s how it’s been for the past two weeks.” Murtaza said.
In 2012, a similar crisis emerged. But the protest spiraled out of control when seven young men began to beat power station workers. “The situation was tense. The police came, disrupted the crowd, and arrested the boys,” he recalled.
An FIR or an official investigation was launched against the protestors. “They were released, but the boys still have to go to the courts until the case against them is cleared. It’s an ongoing issue,” Murtaza bemoaned.
A short documentary, “Paradise on Earth in Kashmir” made by a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Claire Schneider, documents the power crisis in winter 2012.
At the start of her film, Claire reports, “The state’s infrastructure is not equipped to handle snow and power shuts down.” A woman is shown, kneeling in front of a gas stove, covered in layers of clothing. “In the morning, it is shivering. Too cold,” she complains.
Earlier this year, in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, I remember rubbing my hands in front of a kerosene stove before going to bed in six layers of clothing, lying under two large blankets. A winter without heat was unnerving. I cannot imagine an entire season freezing.
For many Kashmiris, a home without electricity is becoming the standard, but still unacceptable. Today, more families are getting used to the dark. In a recent report, a 55-year old woman said, “In my lifetime, our home never had a 24-hour power supply.”
With impending snowfall, someone grabs the microphone from the mosque. An unknown man calls on local residents to join him tomorrow morning at ten to storm the power station. Again.
Only this time the men will not go home until representatives from the government will do something. This winter, Kashmiris are not asking for freedom. No chants for a separate state. They just want the lights turned back on.
Today, the protestors went to the station in full force. A government official was present with a team of police in case things got messy. The official agreed to keep the lights on tonight and asked residents for a few more days.
“You’ll have regular power on Sunday,” he said, confidently. “I hope he’s right,” Murtaza said, “If he’s wrong, this will never end.” That would mean more angry mobs and potential violence, if the state falls short of its promise.