DR RAJA MUZAFFAR BHAT
When the winter sets in and snowfall closes our roads there is chaos and confusion everywhere. Due to the dearth of snow clearance machines govt hires JCBs to clear roads. It does clear snow, but damages the road surface which creates further problems. For the last almost a week we have witnessed snowfall in upper reaches and in many districts of Kashmir valley, and hilly areas of Jammu as well. More snowfall is expected in the next few days. Is our administration ready to face challenges on account of snow clearance from roads? Last year authorities were not able to clear snow from roads within a minimum possible time. The reason was huge snowfall in Kashmir and lack of snow clearance vehicles and machinery with the Government. It seems the govt has not learnt from the mistakes of the past.
No snow clearance machines
Authorities, in rural areas especially, are always seen pressing into service JCBs or tractors for snow clearance, instead of snow cutting vehicles. The reason is simple. There aren’t enough of the latter to serve all the towns or villages. In Budgam district for instance, there are only 12 snow-clearing machines. They have to clear snow from hundreds of kilometres of road length. In Baramulla, or any other district, the situation is the same. Due to the shortage of snow-machines, there is delay in clearing the roads amid snowfall, and when there is 3 to 4 feet snowfall the situation becomes more challenging.
JCBs damage road surface
In January last year when a JCB was sent to clear snow in Rupora village near Chadoora town, the local residents intervened and sent it back. The locals preferred to clear the snow with spades instead, as the JCB damaged the road surface which had been blacktopped in the summer of 2020. Last summer, crores of rupees were spent on repairing, relaying and constructing retaining walls on the nine kilometre stretch from Bonyar village to Goggee Pathri road via Kutabl in Chararsharief area. It was blacktopped for the first time and the villagers living in the area rejoiced, but their elation was short lived. After just five months the road was undone as heavy JCBs were rolled out to clear the snow; and in the process scratchedout the surface of the bitumen road. Same complaints poured in from Kupwara, Bandipora Ganderbal and other districts as well.
While the mechanical engineering department takes up snow clearance works on major roads of the district, the Roads and Buildings Department (R&B) hires contractors who use JCBs or agricultural tractors for snow clearance. They are in charge of clearing village roads and link roads that they have constructed. In addition, the roads constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY) are taken care of by contractors for five years. This is called the Defect Liability Period (DLP) and snow clearance work is also to be undertaken by them. Contractors use JCBs to clear snow and sometimes the mechanical engineering department also pitches in on the more important roads of the district.
Snow clearance under NREGA
I am unable to understand why the authorities couldn’t use Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – (MG-NREGA) funds for snow clearance work? Many of the people in the remote parts of J&K have been demanding this. I have myself been campaigning around this issue for the last many years and have written about the issue rigorously during last 10 years. Some years back the then Rural Development Minister JK govt Abdul Haq Khan met with Union Minister Rural Development and apprised him about this issue, but no follow up was made by the J&K Rural Development department later on. Last year when snow clearance, and fund utilization under MG-NREGA were discussion on social media Wajahat Habibullah, retired IAS officer and former chief information commissioner, who has served as Secretary Panchayati Raj Govt of India, supported my claim that Govt of India must amend NREGA rules to allow snow clearance work in J&K and other hill states receiving snowfall.
No work in winters
Most of the work covered under the MG-NREGA often comes to a halt in hilly states such as Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand or even Ladakh during the winter. This leaves most rural labourers unemployed for several months. Keeping this in mind, the district administration of Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh some years back suggested to the state government that the task of clearing snow should be included under NREGA. The Department of Rural Development, Government of Himachal Pradesh accepted this suggestion since road construction and clearing of debris can be categorized as essential activities, and can, therefore, be undertaken under the scheme.
The district administration of Kinnauremployed local villagers to clear snow from narrow roads in far off villages across the district. The payment to these villagers was made under NREGA. On the other hand, in Jammu and Kashmir, or Ladakh, we witness heavier snowfall than Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. Still, we don’t have a single snow clearance activity sanctioned under NREGA. As of now, in Kashmir, clearance of snow happens using JCBs and bulldozers—which are meant for soil excavation. They often damage the roads.
The Rural Development Department J&K claims that clearing snow from lanes, roads, and public spaces cannot come under NREGA as it does not lead to creation of physical assets. Though Kinnaur has set a precedent and made the case for snow clearance to be included in NREGA works, the Jammu and Kashmir government is yet to forward a formal proposal to the Ministry of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Govt of India for this.
Timely snow clearance across all the villages, especially remotely located places in higher reaches, is not possible unless the Government does not involve the Department of Rural Development that can use NREGA funds available with them. This will serve three purposes.
Snow clearance can be undertaken at an appropriate time in remote / hilly areas of J&K
The activity will generate livelihood for rural youth especially when these youth have no work during winter months.
Blacktopped roads won’t be damaged by bulldozers and JCBs
NREGA and waste management
Under Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-G) MG-NREGA funds are allowed to be utilized for Solid and Liquid Waste Management by dovetailing the both. If this convergence is possible why cannot authorities utilize NREGA funds for snow clearance? During execution of Solid Liquid Waste Management (SLWM) in rural areas not much of the physical assets are created except when the implementing agency constructs waste processing sheds etc. But construction of these sheds is only one of the activities under this programme. Activities like segregation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, cleaning water-bodies, springs and village streams or Information Education and Communication (IEC) work hardly involve any physical asset creation? For all these works NREGA funds are allowed to be used by the Govt of India but when it comes to snow clearance officials say funds cannot be utilized for this?
I won’t blame the Govt of India for not allowing utilization of MG-NREGA funds for snow clearance work. The fact of the matter is that successive Governments in J&K have not been able to give proper explanation, or a convincing presentation, to the Union Rural Development Ministry in this regard. Isn’t timely snow clearance an asset? Isn’t creating livelihoods in harsh winter months an asset? By using MG-NREGA funds for snow clearance work, we will be adhering to the preamble of this act which reads: “The Act (NREGA) is to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas.”
During winter months the rural people are mostly jobless and if we involve them to clear snow from village link roads, lanes, community spaces, it would not only make villages look neat and clean but will also create jobs during the winter days. I appeal to Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta, and Principal Secretary Rural Development Department Bipul Pathak, to take up this issue with the Govt of India.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow.
He is Founder & Chairman of J&K RTI Movement and Anant Fellow for Climate Action…
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.