NH-44: An Engineering Marvel or a Death Trap?
Jammu and Kashmir’s main lifeline, Srinagar-Jammu highway, has continued to remain in news in every weather, for all the reasons—becoming a death trap for travellers and visitors.
According to official figures, more people have died in road accidents than militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in the last four years. Over 22,000 road fatalities have occurred in the union territory during the last four years. During the same period, more than 1100 people including militants, security personnel, and civilians have died in strife, the official figures say.
“Every time one decides to take this route to Jammu, your family starts getting restless till you reach the destination,” said Pradeep Singh, a traveller from Beerwah area in central Kashmir’s district Budgam.
He said that the terrain in the entire Ramban district was quite difficult for commuters. However, the road from Ramban toward Jammu has come up really well. “This road has been in the news for all the bad reasons.. We have seen a lot of accidents happening on this road. People need to maintain a lot of caution. Every time we hear stories of death and destruction along this highway. The administration must also keep a close vigil on the violators, who led to such disasters,” Singh said.
Another commuter said that the vacant posts in the Traffic Police wing should be filled to do away with the shortage of traffic police personnel so that they are deployed on vulnerable roads. He said the health department must explore the possibility of developing more trauma centres near accident-prone highways to help accident victims during the crucial golden hours.
According to official figures, nearly 24,200 persons have died in road accidents from 2017 to 2021 in Jammu and Kashmir. Around 5624 people died in 2017, which went up to 5978 deaths in 2018. In 2019, 5796 deaths were reported in road mishaps. Last year, however, the number fell to 4860, because of the extended COVID lockdowns. Out of the total nearly 24,200 deaths, over 500 have occurred on Srinagar-Jammu Highway alone.
According to officials, more deaths have occurred in the Jammu region especially, in Pir Panjal and the Srinagar Jammu highway.
“For many years now, we have been witnessing that road accidents have been mostly occurring in Rajouri, Doda, Poonch and other areas which are located at high altitude. In the Kashmir region, accidents occur mainly on the national highway due to the negligence of drivers and other reasons,” officials said.
“The accident rate on the national highway gets high during winter time. If the roads are closed for long, there is a desperation for the commuters to drive home quickly and sometimes they end up meeting accidents in rash driving,” they said.
The officials said that in association with the traffic department, a constant awareness campaign regarding road safety goes round the year, saying that it generates good response and feedback from the people in general.
As per the Ministry of Roads and Transport, major causes of accidents on the National Highways (NHs) in Jammu and Kashmir are due to vehicle design and condition, road engineering, over-speeding, drunken driving/ consumption of alcohol and drug, driving on the wrong side, jumping the red light and use of the mobile phone during driving.
“The road engineering along national highways, especially in Ramban areas like Ramsu and other slide prone areas is a great cause of concern and the government must address this issue on priority before we lose more lives” young structural engineer, Aqib Amin, told Greater Kashmir.
“We have seen tunnels have done a lot of good to this highway, which has otherwise seen a lot of trauma situations. Rather than disturbing the ecological framework, mountains, the government should have gone for more tunnels in Ramban patch. It will continue to have landslide issues for many years to come and averting tragedies will be a big question for the government,” he said, adding “We have seen areas along this highway, where you notice a lot of shooting stones falling and that become the major cause of death here. It is to be checked on priority.”
Deputy Commissioner, Ramban Mussarat Zia, who keeps on educating people and commuters about the safety measures along Srinagar-Jammu highway, said Jammu-Srinagar National Highway is our lifeline. It becomes lifeless by negligent and rash driving.” He urged commuters to drive carefully and show restraint from rash driving along the highway.
The government of India has launched a scheme to create awareness on road safety through electronic media, print media, and NGOs. The recently passed motor vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 also enlists huge penalties for ensuring strict compliance and enhancing deterrence.
Pertinently, last year road accidents killed as many as 47,984 people on National Highways, across India. India recorded 1.2 lakh cases of “deaths due to negligence relating to road accidents” in 2020, with 328 persons losing their lives every day on an average, despite the COVID-19 lockdown, according to government data.
As many as 3.92 lakh lives have been lost in three years in deaths due to negligence related to road accidents, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) revealed in its annual ‘Crime India’ report for 2020. While 1.2 lakh deaths were recorded in 2020, the figures stood at 1.36 lakh in 2019 and 1.35 lakh in 2018, the data show.
The country logged 1.35 lakh cases of “hit and run” since 2018, the report of the NCRB, which functions under the Union Home Ministry, showed. In 2020 alone, there were 41,196 cases of “hit and run”, while there were 47,504 such cases in 2019 and 47,028 in 2018, the report said. On an average, there were 112 cases of “hit and run” reported across the country every day in the past year, according to the data.
‘Other Killer Roads’
As many as 713 people lost their lives in Jammu and Kashmir in road accidents. As per the data compiled by the J&K Traffic Police Department, 5036 accidents happened in J&K from January to November in 2021, in which 713 persons were killed and 6447 were injured.
“589 accidents were reported fatal and 4447 non-fatal,” the figures reveal, adding that 3278 accidents happen only in Jammu, in which 521 persons were killed and 4241 injured. “102 persons were killed and 1175 injured in Jammu district, 76 killed and 536 injured in Kathua, and 63 persons were killed and 313 injured in Ramban,” the data reveals. In Kashmir, the figures suggest that 1758 accidents took place since January 2021 in which 192 persons were killed and 2206 injured. “36 persons were killed and 333 injured in Srinagar, 25 were killed and 140 injured in Kulgam, and 21 persons were killed and 340 injured in Anantnag district,” the data reveals.
The figures reveal that in 2017, 926 were killed and the injured were 7419. “In 2018, 984 people were killed and 7845 injured. “In 2019, a total of 996 persons were killed, 7532 were injured. In 2020, 728 people were killed, while 5894 were injured.
Pertinently, the deaths caused by road accidents in J&K in 2021 are much higher than those killed by bullets. The figures revealed in the Parliament recently stated that 75 people including 40 civilians and 35 forces personnel were killed in militancy related in Kashmir in the year 2021 (upto November 31).
It may be recalled that the government of India is saying that it has revamped a major portion of the highway during the last few years. In a recently released press communique, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that
“When a network of good roads is created, the economy of the country also picks up pace. Roads are veins and arteries of the nation, which help to transform the pace of development and ensure that prosperity reaches the farthest corners of our nation.” He said that the picturesque Jammu and Kashmir, is dotted with tough geographical terrain and poor road connectivity. Lofty mountains, slippery peaks, ridges, gorges, and ravines are the definition of J&K and Ladakh, which separate it from the rest of the country during the winter months.
‘Mishaps Cause of Worry’
Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha—who chaired a meeting on road safety measures termed deaths due to road accidents a cause of worry. The official handout quoted LG, saying that the Government was making continuous efforts to make the public aware of road safety and is committed to enforce the rules and necessary interventions and facilities. The government is working on identifying factors contributing to road accidents and taking proactive measures, ensuring enforcement of safety laws in true spirit & making improvements in the response system and spreading awareness on road safety.
“We need to make necessary technological interventions for highly effective road safety measures. Training of traffic police, strengthening manpower, generating awareness amongst the people, especially in educational institutions, crackdown on drunken driving & speed, roping in volunteers for road safety programs would be important steps to address the challenges,” he said. The Lt Governor advised for replicating the effective traffic management models and collaborative efforts with different stakeholders to get the desired results on the ground.
According to officials with the recent developments, the road connectivity across Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh regions has mitigated the threat of accidents, and for the first time allowed speedy, smooth travel. These road projects are revolutionising connectivity and bringing economic prosperity to the region. Twenty-five massive projects including Highways in Jammu region, at a cost of Rs 11,800 crore and covering 259 kilometres would accelerate development and cultural connect with the rest of India. In 2014 the proposed road projects stood at 1,695 kilometres, but the Centre has challenged itself to 2,664 kilometres.
Among all the projects NH44 is of prime importance as it connects both the capitals of union territory. National Highway Project NH-44 would provide all-weather-connectivity from Jammu to the Kashmir valley. “It will also reduce journey time from Jammu to Srinagar and strategic border areas in the State of J&K,” said the official communique.
The government said that implementation of the project would result in development of basic infrastructure in the region which would ultimately lead to overall economic development of the regions.
NH1-A (new NH-44) a 287 km long highway is an engineering marvel which will reduce the travelling time from Jammu to Srinagar drastically. The work is pending in Udhampur-Banihal stretch and it will be completed by 2023.
Addressing a rally recently in Doda, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said: “I assure you that this work will be completed in two years and you will be able to reach Srinagar from Jammu in four hours”
NH44 will contain 12 tunnels, which will reduce time, save fuel, save the environment, reduce wear and tear of vehicles. It contains two major tunnels, Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee Tunnel, Banihal Qazigund Road Tunnel, the union minister said.
The highway is 64 kilometres (40 mi) long passing through lofty mountain terrains. The highway is connected to the bypass road which connects Udhampur with Samba directly bypassing the Jammu City. Nandni tunnels are the series of four highway tunnels built under Nandni wildlife sanctuary on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway in at a combined length of 1.4 km,
The tunnels have reduced the distance and travel time between Jammu and Srinagar by bypassing 6.8 km of rugged mountainous area with 3.6 km of straight bridges and tunnels. He said that the 4-laning of Udhampur-Chenani and Nashri-Ramban section is underway, to ensure all weather connectivity. “It will contain 1 bypass, 5 major bridges, 29 minor bridges and 11 junctions. Qazigund – Srinagar is a 68 km stretch and is completed.”