The Highway of Hardships 

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Road widening between Srinagar to Jammu has caused disaster under the garb of development?  

By Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

IT is not for the first time that Kashmir has gone through a harsh winter season with heavy snowfall. This has been a routine in the past. Kashmir valley and other upper reaches especially the Srinagar – Jammu highway around Pir Panjaal mountain pass has always witnessed the heaviest snowfall. Commuters would get stranded for days together on this highway during the 1970’s, 80’s or 90’s but if this highway gets closed for days and weeks in this 21st century we can call this a failure of the authorities especially the construction companies involved in 4-laning of this highway.

Only a few days back two young men from Kupwara namely Shabir Ahmad Mir, 24 and Gulzar Ahmad Mir, 27 died of hypothermia as they had been stranded on NH-44 across Banihal pass. The fresh snowfall on January 23rd led to closure of this highway for the 3rd time in the month of January. The duo had left for Jammu on  22nd January in their lorry (load carrier) from Kupwara but got stuck in the traffic jam amid fresh snowfall. This incident led to protests in Banihal town and people have been demanding blacklisting the construction company which is indeed very much justified as several deadlines have been missed by the company. A rights activist from Kupwara Rasikh Rasool filed a complaint over these deaths before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He accused the Government for having failed to protect the lives of people travelling on NH-44 especially between Srinagar and Jammu.

If the Government has failed to make Srinagar Jammu a fair weather road even in year 2021 , we can only equate this with official incompetence of the Government particularly the National Highways Authority of India (NHIA) which is managing this whole show.

Messed up NH-44 in J&K 

The National Highway number 44 or NH 44  is the longest-running major highway that connects North India with South Indian states. The highway passes through Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab , Haryana, Delhi , Uttar Pradesh , Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh,  Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh , Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. NH 44 came into existence with the merger of seven national highways which included Srinagar -Jammu highway. This was earlier called NH-1A. The 300 Kms Srinagar Jammu section of NH-44 is in the worst condition for the last several years. In the past, the highway would get closed due to landslides and snow avalanches during winter months but now this road gets closed in summers as well soon after a mild rainfall.  More than 6 years have lapsed since the 4 laning of this highway from Jammu to Srinagar was taken up but the project isn’t getting completed. From Nashri to Banihal, we see only muck and dust on the highway and when it rains the highway becomes muddy. There are landslides at several places adding to miseries of people. Due to constant blasting by the engineers on the Ramban -Banihal mountain area , the adjoining highway has been affected. Recently, a bridge along with adjacent road caved in near Kela more area of Ramban. This led to closure of the highway for a week or more until a bailey bridge was erected at the site by Border Roads Organisation (BRO) .

Several Deadlines Missed 

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) which is the intending authority for the 4-laning of Srinagar -Jammu section of NH-44 last year revised the deadline for completing the work on two treacherous stretches. One is the 43-km-long Udhampur-Ramban section and the 36-km-long Ramban-Banihal section. The Udhampur-Ramban section was supposed to get completed by December 2019, but  NHAI missed the deadline. Around last summer, the deadline was extended to December 2020 which again missed the target. From Ramban to Banihal it is expected to take another 1 or 2 years to complete four-laning work. The NHAI had fixed December 2021 as the deadline for the project but as we see the work going on at snail’s pace with lots of challenges like caving in of the highway at many paces; I am sure the December 2021 target won’t be a reality as ADG Police (Traffic) recently said that it would take minimum 3 to 4 years to stabilize the highway.

Dumping of muck in Chenab  

M/S Gammon India a noted infrastructure company has been allotted the work on Udhampur – Ramban section by NHAI. The company along with few other contractors have been accused of dumping muck inside the Chenab river. The company was also allegedly dumping muck in Devika river near Moudh Udhampur where it  set up a stone crushing unit inside the river bed illegally. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took serious notice of muck dumping inside Chenab river some years back. In a recent hearing of the case, the NGT castigated the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) which is the intending agency and construction company. NGT pulled up NHAI and the executing agency for dumping large quantities of muck into the Chenab river at several spots. NGT even directed the J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB) to take stringent measures in this regard as in past the PCB had shown a lukewarm attitude towards NHAI and the executing agency. NGT bench comprising chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel in his order issued around October 2020 year said that J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB) may proceed with the recovery of compensation for the damage and initiate prosecution against the violators of environmental norms following the due process of law. The case has now been listed on March 31st 2021. Nobody knows whether J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB) has recovered compensation from the construction company or not ?

1750 deaths in one decade 

As per the data compiled by J&K Traffic Department in the last 10 years, the Srinagar-Jammu highway saw over 8,000 road accidents. There were around 1,750 deaths and more than 12,000 people having been injured in these road traffic accidents (RTAs) between years 2010 to 2020. The most dangerous stretch, on the Banihal to Nashri sector as discussed above, alone has seen more than 850 deaths in the RTAs. The Director General of Police (ADGP) J&K Traffic, T Namgyal in a media report has attributed the highway accidents to the increasing volume of traffic and the rocky mountain terrain. The number of mishaps on Srinagar-Jammu highway (NH44) is not at all coming down. This is in fact increasing day by day. There is not even a single day when we don’t hear about deaths and injuries happening on Srinagar Jammu highway especially in Banihal-Ramban -Nashri sector where the condition of the road is worst and landslides take place almost every week or sometimes every day. The mountains which have been blasted and drilled during the last few years seem to have become unstable.

Conclusion 

Traveling between Srinagar and Jammu has become too risky now. People prefer to travel between Srinagar to Jammu by flight rather than going through a nightmare on this highway. The frequent closure of this road line is causing great economic losses as well. There is scarcity of essentials in the markets most of the time in winters. The essential items like poultry , mutton and fruits are sold at exorbitant rates in Srinagar soon after the highway gets closed. People with vested interests, especially the wholesale fruit dealers, mutton dealers , poultry merchants take undue advantage of the highway closure and they start hoarding essential items. Lastly, the construction work that has been going on for the last several years had a great environmental impact. Geologists and earth scientists say that the same cannot be compensated for many decades as mountains, forests , water bodies and rivers have been a great causality of this road widening project.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. He is Anant fellow for Climate Action and Acumen Fellow as well. Feedback: bhatrajamuzaffar@gmail.com 

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