Chenab-Pir Panjal region stand at the top with most of the road accident fatalities in Jammu and Kashmir. More people have died in road accidents in the region than those killed in all of natural disasters across Jammu and Kashmir in past decade. And it is for this reason highways connecting to the mountainous region with the outside world have earned the sobriquet of killer roads.
Almost every 10 households in the region have been directly or indirectly affected by road accidents here, says Asif Iqbal Butt, a social activist from the region known for raising the issue of recurring road accidents. “Almost every week, we hear about fatal road accidents in the region,” Butt says.
Butt’s claim is fully supported by official data. Only within the past four weeks (June and July, 2023), as many as 13 people have lost their lives and 15 others have received grievous injuries in the road accidents. Official data at Jammu and Kashmir’s Traffic Department accessed by Kashmir Observer reveals that 22,124 people have been killed in 21,834 road accidents from year 2010 to 2022 across the six districts of Chenab and Pir Panjal region– Poonch, Rajori, Doda, Ramban, Reasi and Udhampur.
Interestingly, around the same period (from 2010 to 2022), natural disasters in all the districts of Jammu & Kashmir have killed 552 people besides causing heavy damage to infrastructure and livestock, says a study Extreme Weather Events induced mortalities in Jammu and Kashmir, India during 2010-2022, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
The comparison of data reveals that the number of people killed in road accidents in 12 years in Chenab region is 40 times more than deaths occurring as a result of natural disasters in all the districts of Jammu and Kashmir around the same period. This, despite the study revealing that there is a significant increase in mortality over the years in Jammu and Kashmir particularly due to flash floods and windstorms adding that there has been an increase in extreme weather events in the region over the past two decades which is seen as a manifestation of global warming and human-caused climate change.
According to another study, Review of Disasters in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh Region, published in the International Journal of Population Studies in June 2020, Jammu & Kashmir is afflicted not only by multiple natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, avalanches, and landslides, but also by violence, which has caused unparalleled death and destruction. Yet, the data cited in the study reveals that the insurgency and anti-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh region over the past three decades has led to 47,689 deaths between 1988 and July 30, 2020. This implies that the number of people who have got killed in road accidents in the six districts of Chenab and Pir Panjal region in the past 12 years is almost the half of the total number of people having lost their lives in three decades of armed violence (between 1988 and 2020) in the entire erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state.
Udhampur with 5,918 deaths, Rajori with 4,898 and Ramban with 3,665 are the three districts in the region which have recorded the highest number of deaths in the said period.
Accidents in the six districts of Chenab and Pir Panjal region makes Jammu and Kashmir one of the worst regions all across India in terms of death prone accidental areas. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which works under the union home ministry, Jammu and Kashmir topped the list of “high death prone accidental areas” in 2011 in India.
The NCRB survey also revealed that any accident in Jammu and Kashmir has 64 percent chances of being “death prone”, the worst among Indian states on the basis of percentage of fatalities.
Another report of NCRB in 2014 concluded that Jammu and Kashmir with 1.1 accidental deaths per thousand vehicles, was one of the highest accident hotspots in the country. The all India rate of accidental deaths per thousand vehicles was 0.9, the report said.
While traffic authorities and other government officials often blame rash and negligent driving for most deaths across Jammu and Kashmir and Chenab region, activists and locals in Chenab and Pir Panjal region say that the government is equally responsible for not doing enough for reducing the number of road accidents and casualties despite the fact that these accidents have been occurring for years.
“I have been saying that all of us have to make efforts to at least minimize the number of road accidents and casualties. But, there is a lot the government can do for making sure that the number of accidents gets reduced if not completely stopped,” Butt says adding that a house committee of the state assembly in 2012, headed by Mohammad Yousuf Taragami, had recommended several measures including forming a traffic regulatory authority which would oversee monitoring and regulating of traffic on the roads across Chenab region besides making the violators accountable.
“But, unfortunately, those recommendations were never implemented,” Butt regrets and adds that still a lot can be done if this issue is addressed seriously. For example, he says, installing CCTV cameras, constructing tunnels at sharp curves, keeping critical care ambulances available in the Chenab region. According to him, the administration has to be pressured to do something urgently about the recurring accidents besides spreading awareness among drivers to take care of their lives and those traveling with them. Butt observes that training the drivers for driving in hilly terrains is something the government should consider urgently “in the manner it is being done in Himachal Pradesh and some other hilly regions.”
Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, in response to public interest litigations and a letter written to the chief justice of High Court in December last year by Butt for taking suo moto notice of the recurring fatal road accidents in Chenab region, had asked the state government on February 20 this year to constitute a committee to look at the causes of the road accidents in Chenab region and give recommendations for stopping or minimizing the accidents.
Accordingly, government had constituted a committee in compliance with the directions of the High Court for ascertaining the reasons for an increase in cases of road accidents in the hilly Chenab Valley and suggesting measures for stopping the accidents.
The court had specifically mentioned the PIL No. 30/2019 C/W PIL No. 01/2018 WP(C) PIL No. 13/2022 titled Intakhab Ahmed Qazi V/s Union territory of J&K.
Headed by the Engineer in Chief (Secretary of Technical, the other members include the Public Works (R&B) Department, Secretary, Road Safety Council, Executive Director (P) NHIDCL, Jammu Office, Superintending Engineer PW(R&B) Circle Doda and Senior Superintendent of Police, (Traffic) Rural.
Kashmir Observer contacted one of the members of the committee, Superintending Engineer PW(R&B) Circle Doda, Rampal Gupta, who said that the report prepared by the committee is ready.
Quoting from the report, he said: “The accidents are not limited to road alignment only but also have broader correlation with driver’s state of mind, fatigue, condition of vehicle and weather conditions.”
The experts in the committee have suggested strict enforcement of speed limit by installing CCTVs cameras and speed trackers at the specified spots along the roads in Chenab region besides taking measures such as conducting breathing tests for drunken driving at different spots along the roads.
Strict action should be taken against the violators of traffic rules including registering FIRs against them, the committee has recommended and has urged the administration to strongly act against the use of expired vehicles in the extremely difficult roads in Chenab region. Other recommendations include: checking the overtaking of vehicles by erecting dividers at vulnerable spots, fixation of automatic speed control devices in passenger vehicles and training sessions for drivers besides awareness campaigns using traditional and social media.
“Over-speeding is the main cause of traffic accidents in the Chenab valley. And most of the drivers use mobile phones while driving which divides their attention and often results in accidents,” Gupta told Kashmir Observer.
Other reasons, he said, include untrained drivers and some drivers mixing driving with drinking. “Otherwise, the roads are not bad for driving. We found the roads OK,” Gupta told Kashmir Observer.
But local residents say that the fatality of roads has been “ignored” for quite some time now.“Only a very bad accident involving the death of dozens attracts attention of the authorities,” says a resident of Doda, Imtiyaz, while preferring sharing his first name only.
“The response remains limited to statements and condolence messages, and then everything settles in and the vehicles go on killing people as usual,” he opines.
What is Govt Doing
In February 2023, the Jammu and Kashmir administration constituted a five-member committee to ascertain reasons for increasing cases of road accident in the hilly terrain of Chenab valley.
According to an order issued by the General Administration Department (GAD), the committee will suggest measures for making the Batote-Doda-Kishtwar highway accident- free, in compliance with directions of the high court.
Engineer-in-chief (secretary technical), Public Works (roads and buildings) Department, will be the chairman of the committee whose other members are secretary of Road Safety Council, executive director of National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), Jammu office, superintending engineer, Public Works (R&B) Department circle Doda and senior superintendent of police (traffic), Rural Jammu.
In December 2022, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh hearing a petition had directed the government to constitute a committee of experts to ascertain the reasons for frequent road accidents on the highway in the Chenab valley comprising Ramban, Kishtwar and Doda districts.
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