Meet Bilal Dar, Kashmir’s youngest Environmental Activist

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  • Publish Date: Oct 10 2017 9:54PM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 10 2017 9:54PM
Meet Bilal Dar, Kashmir’s youngest Environmental Activist

The 17-year-old has been cleaning the Wullar lake for seven years now

Bilal Dar is Kashmir’s youngest full-time environmental activist. The 17-year-old from Laharwalpora, in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, has devoted the last seven of his life cleaning the Wullar lake – although initially unwittingly – but he only shot to fame after a documentary about his life and activism went viral on social media in 2015. This year, his work was recognised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And he was made brand ambassador of Srinagar Municipal Corporation.

 

Bilal was forced by poverty to drop out of high school. Now though he is set to go back. Ink caught up with the activist to speak about his life and work.

 

Excerpts:

 

Tell us about your life so far?

My life has been a struggle. First, it was a struggle against the kind of life my family and I had to live. We still don’t have piped water in our home; we have to fetch water from the Wullar daily. Then my father died when I was eight and I had to shoulder the responsibility of looking after my family. That’s the age when a child is supposed to be playing with toys, going to school. I was working for a living. I would wake up at 5 am and go to the Wullar to fetch sackfuls of dirt. The Wullar became my school, sacks and oars my toys. This has been my life so far. Now, there is some relief after I was appointed the brand ambassador. I have money for my family and I can go back to school and also take training in solid waste management.

 

Why did you have to drop out of school? Couldn’t your family have supported you?

My mother could not afford to send me to school although she believes she could. Look, she used to do chores in other people’s homes to earn some money. It wasn’t sufficient to feed three children and send them to school too. I remember the day I decided to give up my education. My school headmaster asked me to pay the fees that had accumulated over months. I returned home and told my mother. She wept because she had no money. That was when I decided to drop out.

 

You have been working for nearly nine years now. Has your family’s material situation improved?

Not really. When my older sister got married, she had to wear our mother’s jewellery. We could not give a sumptuous feast. Four men came with the groom, we offered them Kehwa and that is it. We did not have money to do anything else. In 2014, the floods nearly washed away our home. The government paid us fifty thousand rupees as compensation. Of that, ten thousand rupees went into paying the rent for the shikara we had lived in for the month our home was under water.

 

When did you start cleaning the Wullar and why?

My father was mason, but he knew to sail a shikara. When he didn’t have masonry work, he would collect plastic from the lake and sell it to scrap dealers. I used to accompany him and learnt sailing and cleaning the Wullar. The experience came handy when my father died.

We didn’t have our own boat then. So, I would take my neighbours’ boats without telling them until I returned from the lake. They used to get furious and call me names. It didn’t deter me, though.

 

And then you became famous?

Frankly, I wasn’t very proud of the kind of work I did; I felt that people would look down upon me and my family. Then, after the floods, a film-maker visited me. He convinced me to come on video. I took the risk. The video was uploaded and seen by thousands of people. The government learnt about it, approached me, and the rest you know.

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has praised your work. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has felicitated you. The SMC has made you their brand ambassador, promising to pay an honorarium and providing for your schooling and solid waste management training. How does this all feel after all those years of struggle?

I am thankful to all of them. A feeling of gratification is beginning to come into my life.

 

Any plans for your immediate future?

I want to build a new home with piped water, get a metalled road laid to my village, and a government job. If I get all these things, I will be the happiest person.