The only link connecting Kashmir to the rest of the world gets blocked with a light snowfall and shooting stones along the road. Ajaz Rashid writes a detailed report on how political apathy had failed Kashmir in getting a single all-weather highway that would connect it to the world outside.

Heavy Trucks plying on NH-44, Pic Credit: Ajaz Rashid

Shahid Shabir, a resident of Srinagar, had a bitter experience of the Srinagar-Jammu highway while travelling from Banihal to Srinagar.

Shahid was stuck at Banihal for a day and went through a tough time as the authorities disallowed the passage of vehicles on the highway.

“I took a train from Srinagar to Banihal but, on my return, all the trains to Srinagar got cancelled due to the frozen track. I then tried to catch a cab but that too was not allowed to move ahead,” Shahid said.

After travelling on foot for almost 9 kilometres, Shahid then took refuge in a stranded truck for the night.

“I tried to book a hotel but all were occupied. So, I had no option but to sleep in a truck like many others,” he said.

Shahid’s bitter experience of the highway is not an aberration but a norm.

Srinagar-Jammu highway or the NH 44, the only road connecting Kashmir to rest of the world often gets blocked and puts commuters to extreme hardships.

At a number of locations, it’s little better than a patchwork of mud and rocks and summarises the apathy of Government of India toward the northernmost state.

Irfan Nizami, an engineering graduate from the mountainous district of Banihal, had to board a flight for the first time in his life.

Irfan left his home in Paristan village of Banihal at 5.30 am to catch a 12.25 pm flight from Srinagar. The 108-kilometre mountainous journey from Banihal to Srinagar usually takes three hours, but at noon, he was at Dooru, having covered a mere 30 kilometres due to the snail’s pace of traffic along the highway.

The highway had witnessed landslides and shooting stones due to inclement weather. Knowing that his fate had been sealed by the highway, he hopped off the Tata Sumo he was travelling in and started his journey back home.

Hundreds of vehicles stranded on Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, Pic Credit: Ajaz Rashid

With the blocked highway, supplies reach the Valley after seven or eight days and are mostly rotten. The road closure also affects exports like apples.

Kashmir does not have a rail link to the rest of the world even to this day and as soon as the Srinagar-Jammu highway gets blocked, airfares touch the sky.

After the partition of the subcontinent and India’s independence, Kashmir’s northern and western sides were closed down, and the closure of the highway also closes down the southern side.

In 2017, IndiaSpend carried an analysis of J&K Police and Union Home Ministry data since 2004 and found out 46 per cent more people had died in road accidents in Kashmir than in armed violence.

Most of these accidents occurred on the highway connecting Kashmir valley, Pir Panjal region, and Chenab valley.

In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated India’s longest 9-km Chenani-Nashri tunnel built at the cost of Rs 2500 crore that links Kashmir Valley with Jammu and reduces the distance by 30 km, but the main problem lies in the stretch between Katra and Banihal stretch.

Around 1200 trucks and as many fuel tankers, besides 1000 vehicles ferrying passengers, ply on the Srinagar-Jammu highway on a routine day.

The numbers increase during the fruit season when around 1000 trucks-laden with apples and other fruits move out of Kashmir daily. And then there are over 500 vehicles of troops and paramilitary forces on the road every day.  Nearly 7000 vehicles cross the Banihal toll post on an average day. No wonder, frequent closure of the road plunges the Valley into a crisis.

Police believe the road-widening of the highway was being done unscientifically by the National Highway Authority of India and the Hindustan Construction Company, without slope safety being maintained.

“This is due to the mountain-cutting work being done by the NHAI,” says a senior police officer. “Our job is to ensure smooth traffic, which can only happen if the road is not blocked due to rockslides and landslides.”

Officers say excavation was being done in a way that makes the mountain’s top portion slide down. “Debris gets pushed down to the stream, doing away with the need to transport it to a disposal site and saving the agency a lot of money,” says an official.

Jammu Srinagar Highway closed due to snowfall, Pic Credit: Ajaz Rashid

NHAI Regional Officer Jammu Kashmir, Hemraj says his organisation cannot be blamed for being solely responsible for the problem.

“The majority of critical areas where rockslides are taking place aren’t where the NHAI has done excavation work so far,” he says. “The issue is being raised by Jammu Kashmir government officials with the NHAI.”

The four-laning of the Ramban-Banihal (32.10 km), and Udhampur-Ramban (40.07 km) stretches of the Srinagar-Jammu highway was approved in 2015 after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs gave the go-ahead.

The Ramban to Banihal stretch comprises two bypasses, six major and 21 minor bridges, 152 culverts, seven pedestrians and cattle underpasses, and six tunnels with a total length of 2967.50 metres.

The HCC, a leading infrastructure firm, has been contracted the work on this stretch.

No geological survey has been done in the area from Ramban to Banihal.

“No one referred it to us or to the Geological Survey of India for the survey,” an official says.

The previous Works Minister Naeem Akhtar took up the issue with the union minister Nitin Gadkari when the PDP-BJP coalition government was in office, and Gadkari approved the tunnelling of a major portion.

According to IndiaSpend analysis of J&K Police and Indian home ministry data, since 2004, road accidents killed 46 percent more people than in armed violence in Jammu Kashmir.

More civilians died in traffic accidents since 2004 than in armed conflict in twice as many years (since it began in 1989-90), as per the records of the J&K Traffic Police and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

J&K topped the list of “high accidental death-prone areas” in a National Crime Records Bureau survey conducted in 2013, which found that an accident in J&K had a 64 percent chance of causing death as opposed to 36.4 percent for all of India.

A total of 14,407 civilians died in 77,786 road accidents in the 13 years from 2004 to June 2017, which also injured 1,07,622 people. This is more than the 13,936 civilians killed in Kashmir’s insurgency, as per a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The J&K government had formulated a State Road Safety Policy which lays down guidelines for enforcement of traffic rules, engineering of roads and bridges, analysis of accident data and creation of awareness among the people.

“The guidelines say the government should improve the capacity of traffic law enforcement agencies such as traffic police and motor vehicles department for minimizing and avoiding road accidents,” an official said, adding that the guidelines provide for traffic personnel to be equipped with advanced devices for detecting over-speeding, red-light jumping, drunken driving and so on.

Similarly, the guidelines on road engineering lay emphasis on identifying accident-prone spots and improving road design.

“Creating proper health infrastructure is another crucial area. For example, establishing trauma centres and making critical ambulances and recovery cranes easily available,” the official said.

At the same time, policymakers need to grapple with the proliferation of vehicles, for which lack of viable public transport is partly to blame.

The number of vehicles on the roads doubled from over 7 lakh in 2010 to over 14 lakh (14,881,90) in March 2017, as per the J&K Transport Commissioner’s office, foregrounding the need for better public transport.

Even though the Government of India granted Rs 6716 crore for the up-gradation of Jammu-Srinagar highway under the Prime Minister’s package, the road often gets blocked and puts commuters to extreme hardships.

Highlighters

·      Srinagar-Jammu highway gets blocked as soon as the Valley receives snowfall and the road witnesses rockslides

·      Around 1200 trucks and as many tankers, 1000 passenger vehicles and over 500 military or paramilitary vehicles move on the highway daily

·      Accident in J&K have 64% chance of causing death opposed to 36.4% for all of India

·      Government of India granted Rs 6716 crore for the up-gradation of Jammu-Srinagar highway under the Prime Minister’s package but more than half of the funds are unspent

However, more than the inclement weather, the failure of successive governments to utilise the funds on the construction of the road has been the biggest drawback for its dilapidated condition.

In 2018, the Government of India granted Rs 4306 crore for Udhampur-Ramban-Banihal road and Rs 2410 crore for Qazigund-Banihal road.

However, not even half of the funds have been utilised till date to repair the road.

The political apathy of the successive governments toward Srinagar-Jammu highway during the past 73 years has damaged the road.

Rather than blaming inclement weather all the time, a sincere effort by the political parties at the helm of affairs over the years could have saved the highway from its present dilapidated condition.

In May 2019, National Conference (NC) General Secretary Ali Muhammad Sagar alleged that the Governor’s administration and Government of India failed to upkeep the Srinagar-Jammu highway.

“It is an embarrassment that even after 73 years of independence no headway has been made to connect Kashmir with the rest of world through an all-weather road. Even a drizzle of rain detaches the Valley with the rest of the world,” Sagar said. “The Government of India and the incumbent administration with all their men and machinery have miserably failed to upkeep the important stretch of road connecting Srinagar and Jammu.”

(The story was published in Kashmir Scan Magazine in January 2020 as cover story)

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