Amid the Covid-19 crisis in Kashmir, a man on his two-wheeler arrived at Mohammad Rafiq’s shop on the outskirts of Srinagar. At first, Rafiq thought that he might be one of his customers. But the man actually wanted to talk to Rafiq in his capacity as head of a community treasury known as the Khair-ul-Khairaat Bayt-ul-Maal at Burzahama Hazratbal.

The visitor was a businessman whose savings had been exhausted due to consecutive lockdowns since August 2019. Hesitant to ask for monetary help, he had made several trips around Rafiq’s shop before actually stopping.

“He struggled to buy food for his family and decided to visit our Bayt-ul-Maal,” Rafiq said. “That was the time I realised how grave the effect of the pandemic was on the finances of common people.”

Bayt-ul-Maal is an Arabic term that translates to “house of money” or “house of wealth”. In Kashmir, local mosques often house such community treasuries.

When the pandemic hit, Kashmir was hit hard. The Valley had already seen rigid lockdowns since August 2019 following the revocation of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir by the Narendra Modi government. As overwhelmed hospitals and cash-strapped NGOs struggled to provide help, religious charities, including the community treasuries, helped to shoulder some of the burden.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Jammu and Kashmir had a total number of 322,142 positive cases. As of August 8, there were 4,386 deaths and 1,229 active cases.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, many shocking cases came forward in our locality that we could have never imagined would require help,” Rafiq said.

Community efforts

The primary objective of the Bayt-ul-Maals is to ensure socio-economic justice. To assist needy households, these community treasuries in Kashmir collect monthly donations through zakat (an obligatory religious tax on Muslims who own assets) and Ushur or tithes, which is equivalent to one-tenth of the farm produce from people involved in agriculture.

Donations also come when Bayt-ul-Maals put up stalls outside masjids on Fridays. Donations are also collected online. When crisis hits, community treasuries use social media to solicit funds.

Many well-to-do families and scores of volunteers have signed up for a banking provision that deducts a specified sum of money from their accounts and credits it to the community treasury every month.

Food kits at Musa'b Bin Umair Bayt-ul-Maal at Nowhatta in Srinagar. Photo credit: Farheen Qureshi

When the coronavirus crisis hit, Bayt-ul-Maals in Kashmir established a system: volunteers would identify households or individuals who needed help. After proper verification, assistance was given.

In Burzhama, the Khair-ul-Khairaat Bayt-ul-Maal is a collaboration of two mosques. Almost a dozen members help run the charity. It was formed in 2014 when Kashmir saw the worst floods in its history..

Rafiq believes that the Covid-19 situation is very different from any other crisis Kashmir has faced so far.

“Even people who were financially stable have started struggling amid the pandemic,” he said. “The fear of catching infection has also made it difficult for the volunteers to reach the needy.”

Over the past two years, his Bayt-ul-Maal has been helping hundreds of people with food. It has also offered financial assistance to several people from other states who were struggling to get back home.

The Bayt-ul-Maal arranged the money for their travel expenses and helped them get to their homes across India.

Second wave strategy

Among those who are grateful for aid from a Bayt-ul-Maal is Srinagar resident Zubair (who declined to give his last name).

In May, his mother Fatima, 50, was diagnosed with pneumonia. As her oxygen saturation levels dropped in the middle of the night, her son, Zubair, dashed to Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial Hospital in Rainawari and returned disheartened, because beds were unavailable there. He then took his mother to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, one of the biggest hospitals in Srinagar. But there too there was no space.

Late one night, Zubair dialled a number he had seen on a Facebook post. It was picked up by a volunteer from an adjacent Bayt-ul-Maal, who promised him immediate help. Within 15 minutes, an oxygen concentrator was dropped off at his home.

This, said Zubair, is what saved his mother’s life from Covid-19.

‘They helped us like they were our own family members,” he said. “I am grateful to them.”

Oxygen concentrators at Musa'b Bin Umair Bayt-ul-Maal at Nowhatta in Srinagar.

From transportation, medication, rations and meals to oxygen and oximeters, socio-religious groups in Kashmir have been at the forefront in the fight against the pandemic. Volunteers from religious charities also helped in stemming the spread of the virus by educating people about how to keep themselves and their families safe.

Sometimes, heads of several religious charities went to mosques to use the loudspeakers to educate residents about Covid-appropriate behaviour.

Among the organisations that stepped up was the Musaib-Bin-Umair Bayt-ul-Maal, based in downtown Srinagar. Using local donations, which were especially high in the month of Ramadan when Muslims do more charity than usual, this Bayt-ul-Maal succeeded in buying 35 oxygen concentrators during the second wave of Covid-19.

A shortfall of oxygen supply in the Valley led to such equipment being sold at high rates in the black market. As the price of a single concentrator shot up to Rs 75,000 from Rs 45,000, Bayt-ul-Maals had to buy them at about twice the actual price.

“The only thing that mattered to us was how we could save lives,” said Hafiz Showkat, chairman of the Musaib-Bin-Umair Bayt-ul-Maal. “Nothing is more expensive than one’s life.”

Donations by locals

Besides the logistics support, the Musaib-Bin-Umair also checked up on widows, roadside vendors and drivers and provided them with monthly rations along with financial assistance during the crisis.

Locals donated around Rs 18 lakh to the Musaib-Bin-Umair during the second wave of Covid-19 when the region’s economy was crippled due to back-to-back lockdowns.

“After people see our work on the ground, they continue their donations to us,” Showkat said. “We believe our good actions help us earn their goodwill. It motivates us to work even harder.”

The Musaib-Bin-Umair Bayt-ul-Maal worked hard to help Covid patients with nebulisers, oximeters, oxygen, wheelchairs, walkers, masks, bedsore mattresses and food kits. Volunteers travelled long distances to make deliveries.

Apart from risking their lives to distributing essential items to the needy through the day, the volunteers also had to keep themselves alert for phone calls asking for help.

Sometimes, two or more community treasuries in an area collaborate to ensure that help reaches the person who needs it.

Markazi Jamia Masjid at Burzahama Hazratbal in Srinagar.

History of solidarity

Another community treasury named the Darul Khair that operates in the heart of Srinagar next to the Jamia Masjid offered auto drivers and migrants oxygen and food. The oxygen concentrator bank it created in the first wave of Covid-19 was expanded and more concentrators were purchased during the second wave.

The trustee of Darul Khair, Haji Altaf, who is also the chairman of another Bayt-ul-Maal in the adjacent locality, said that they prefer to help people anonymously: the support is extended to households without letting their neighbours know.

“We should consider ourselves fortunate because we live for others,” Altaf said. “We cannot do anything alone and that is the driving force that makes us understand what it is to live in a society and the society can only run smoothly when it has some good people in it who are willingly ready to give out a helping hand.”

Farheen Qureshi is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.

The story was reported under the National Foundation for India fellowship for Independent Journalists.