At a time when ‘entrepreneurs’ are the new role models in town, State Municipal Corporation tried making one out of a Bandipora’s trash-collector. After making Bilal a billboard-face in Srinagar, SMC’s campaign became celebratory when their poster boy found a mention in Modi’s Mann ki Baat. But amid the sweeping promotion in his name, Bilal’s tryst with trash continues in his godforsaken hamlet.
On the way to Amira Kadal from Dalgate, along the sprawling Poloview Avenue, facing the JK Bank’s head office is a life-sized poster of a teenage boy in his boat inside the Asia’s largest ‘freshwater’ lake-Wular. Bilal aka Billa – the poster boy of Srinagar Municipal Corporation.
Before becoming the face of SMC—the body grappling with controversies and alleged mishandling of the second oldest city in South Asia, Srinagar—Bilal became a chance discovery of a Kashmiri documentary filmmaker, Jalal Jeelani.
It was 2013, when Jeelani found Bilal through a 400 mm lens from a shrine. He was gazing at Wular with a filmmaker’s curiosity. The moment he saw a 13-year-old boy pulling out trash from the lake, Jeelani sensed a ‘potential story’. In a huff, the filmmaker travelled to Laharpora—a nondescript hamlet in Bandipora—in search of the boy.
Bilal was just any other village boy in his hamlet, regularly venturing in the lake. But Jeelani curtly learned something special about the boy, indeed making him a ‘potential story’. Being a school dropout, the boy was sustaining his family after his father’s death by collecting trash from Wular.
In the boy’s daily slog, Jeelani wanted to capture the bigger picture. While collecting plastic bottles, containers, rubber and everything that would fetch him few pennies in return, Bilal was unknowingly helping Wular to breathe. The filmmaker sat on his boat, talked to him and captured his lake moments.
Bilal was more than a witness of the lake’s fall from grace. He was a living example of how some kids lose their childhood to labour.
All this and more, later became part of the documentary, Saving the savior.
It brought Bilal into limelight, fetching Jeelani an award and the SMC, its low-cost poster boy. But beyond the celebrated façade that some created around this Bandipora simpleton in Srinagar, life is still the same for this young patriarch.
His birthplace Laharpora is a sleepy hamlet, nestled nearby the Wular Lake. A narrow, rough lane connects it with the main town. A small stream that flows through it makes it an idyllic spot — almost hiding its hardships. Around 350 households here suffer for basic amenities. Most of the population lives below poverty line and hardly make their ends meet.
At around 7 am, 17-year-old Bilal wakes and gears himself for a day of labour in the Wular, which is at 10 minutes walk from his home. He reaches the bank, unlocks his boat and moves the oar.
On his way to work, Bilal watches kids going in the opposite direction, carrying schoolbags. The scene sets him thinking, before abruptly telling me, “I will take you in my new boat and show you the location from where trash enters into Wular.”
Bilal is excited because he has got a new boat. His dream of having his own boat was fulfilled when the filmmaker Jeelani facilitated the provision of the boat through an NGO (Arasta), costing around Rs 45,000. After getting it, he had no money to transport it to his house. He took it rowing from Sumbal to Wular.
Billa rowed for one entire day to reach home. The hard-working teen rowing a boat nonstop for 24 hours makes one feel proud—and sad, too—because now he will be carrying peoples’ trash in his dream boat for a living.
Earlier he would ‘borrow’ or rent a boat, depending upon his financial condition. “I used to wake up at the call of dawn prayers and before the daybreak, I would reach the bank and take away boats of other people,” says Bilal, smiling over his mischievous past struggles. “In a way, I used to steal those boats because I could not afford to buy one.”
For his lake forays, he would often freak out his close-door neighbour, Shakeela. He would take her boat without permission and force her to run after him. “He was a child then, and one could only forgive him keeping in mind his struggle to sustain his family,” she says.
But sustaining his family (including his mother, younger sister and his now married elder sister) on a meagre income generated by trash collection was/is still a challenge for him. “I collect around 200 bottles daily from the Wular,” says Bilal, pulling his oar harder with sweat rolling down his forehead, “which means around Rs 250 per day.”
He may not know it, but his regular toil only exposes the very face of the campaign being run in his name.
Despite lacking the signature success aura surrounding the poster boy, Bilal is grateful—not to SMC, but Jeelani. It was because of that supportive filmmaker that he got Rs 1.5 lac from the Rural Development Department to rebuild his flood-hit house, besides his dream boat. For SMC, however, he became a poster boy after they awarded him Rs 10, 000 and an elusive job offer.
As Bilal rows his boat through Wular, a group of five children standing on the bank—collecting water chestnuts and drying cow-dung—make for a glaring sight. Only one boy among them happens to be school-going. The rest are dropouts.
Among them is 7-year-old Yasmeen. Already a school dropout, she isn’t interested in school because “teachers are harsh and often beat her up.” To escape from regular scolding, she prefers to work with her mother. “We don’t have money to send our children to schools,” says Shakeela, Bilal’s neighbour.
Contrary to Laharpora’s impoverished image, Bandipora is known for its traditional triad—the 3 As: Alim, Adhab and Aabh (Knowledge, Culture and Water). At Bilal’s hamlet, while Adhab and Aabh exist in abundance, Alim seems lost in the daily struggles for survival.
But after Bilal’s fame, Laharpora has come into the spotlight—with administration apparently attending to it. So far, however, no major change has swept across. In fact, nothing much has changed in Bilal’s life, too, even after a celebratory cult has been created for him.
After Jeelani’s documentary, people appreciated Bilal and his Wular-saving task. Some support also pumped in for him. But what he began as a 7-year-old, continues at the age of 17 for him. Bilal is doing the same work, pulling out trash from Wular to sustain his family.
His dream of going to school along with his younger sister now seems to be a distant one—because he has been given a better boat and oar to row deep into child labour.
He may find another ‘sweeping’ mention in Modi’s Mann ki Baat—or, he may be still hailed as the SMC’s ‘cheap’ poster boy, but the fact remains: Bilal is still washing society’s dirt inside Wular, just to feed his family. And this somehow, is no child-labour.