The winter brings snow which is nature’s greatest gift, but along with this it brings miseries for Kashmirs. In spite of the fact that most of the developed countries in Europe, America or even Central Asia have more harsh winters than Kashmir, we continue to suffer due to non-availability of even the basic services. Weak road connectivity between Kashmir valley and rest of India, plus inefficient energy supply, make our lives depressing and despairing for almost 5 to 6 months. The weak internet service for the last 1 year is now further making things complicated for us.
The National Highway number 44 also called NH 44 is the longest-running highway that connects North India with Southern states. This 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 being by the merger of seven national highways which included Srinagar-Jammu highway which was earlier known as NH-1A. The 300 Kms Srinagar-Jammu section of NH-44 continues to be in mess. When we were young the highway would get closed for weeks in winters but now for the last few years the things have become more complicated. It is now almost 6 years 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, with landslides adding to miseries of people. From Nashri to Banihal section the highway gets closed for days together even during summers.
NHAI misses deadline
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 and it was extended to December 2020. Will the work get completed by December 2020, I don’t think so? From Ramban to Banihal it is expected to take another 1 or 2 years to complete the four-laning work. The NHAI had fixed December 2021 as the deadline for the project, but I am sure they will again miss this deadline.
Muck dumping in Chenab
Udhampur-Ramban section has been allotted to M/S Gammon India by NHAI through a bidding process several years back. The company is one of the largest infrastructure construction companies in India but the company along with few others have been accused of dumping muck inside Chenab river. The company was also accused of dumping muck in Devika river near Moudh Udhampur where it has set up a stone crushing unit inside the river bed. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took serious notice of this a few years back. In a recent hearing of the case the NGT has once again lambasted the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the 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 this 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. Will PCB adhere to NGT’s orders , the time will tell ?
Mishaps on the highway
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 sector where the condition of 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. These unstable mountains also lead to casualties as stones come down from these mountain tops and hit passenger vehicles on the highway. Lots of deaths are also caused due to skidding of vehicles into deep gorges in the Banihal – Ramban stretch. In past, deaths would occur in winters when the road would be in bad shape but now accidents take place in summer months also. The reason is the worst condition of Srinagar Jammu highway especially between Qazigund to Nashri which is around 100 km long stretch.
Even after 72 years of India’s independence, connecting Srinagar with New Delhi seems to be a big challenge. The infrastructure companies allotted highway construction projects in J&K always miss the deadline. Road building activity serves industry, it serves agriculture, it serves trade, tourism and above all it serves the people. Irony is that Srinagar -Jammu highway is not only a nightmare for people travelling on it but this is now causing a serious environmental disaster as well. The highway closure has direct impact on citizens. In spite of filling the Chenab with muck and blasting the mountains, the net result is zero. Even if NHAI gets the work completed within some years, can it compensate the environmental loss J&K has suffered?
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement