The tragic killing of four persons including two brothers from Southern Kashmir near Ramban at Srinagar- Jammu National Highway once again exposed the causal approach adopted by the executing agencies engaged in the much-publicized National Highway widening project.
The vital Jammu-Srinagar national highway has virtually been turned into a death trap because, after the launching of the widening project, accidents became routine affairs in a stretch of the highway.
On May 30 this year, 10 people were killed while around 55 others were injured after a bus fell into a gorge on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway near Jhajjar Kotli.
Frequent accidents on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway (NH44) are a serious concern, and they can occur due to a combination of factors, including the challenging terrain, adverse weather conditions, heavy traffic, and sometimes human error. Here are some of the common reasons for accidents on this highway:
The highway often suffers from poor maintenance, leading to potholes, uneven surfaces, and deteriorating road conditions. These factors can contribute to accidents, especially when drivers are unable to navigate the road safely.
The region experiences extreme weather conditions, including heavy rainfall, snowfall, fog, and ice during certain seasons. These weather conditions can reduce visibility and make the road slippery, increasing the risk of accidents.
The hilly and mountainous terrain along the highway is prone to landslides and rockslides, which can occur suddenly and pose a significant danger to vehicles on the road.
Some accidents are a result of vehicles, particularly trucks and buses, being overloaded or traveling at excessive speeds. Overloaded vehicles can lose control more easily, and speeding reduces reaction time, making it harder to avoid accidents.
Inadequate road signage and lighting can make it difficult for drivers to navigate the highway safely, especially at night or in adverse weather conditions.
Long hours of driving, especially for commercial vehicles, can lead to driver fatigue, which impairs judgment and reaction times, increasing the risk of accidents.
The highway often experiences heavy traffic congestion, particularly during peak travel times. Congestion can lead to rear-end collisions and other accidents when vehicles are unable to maintain a safe following distance.
Efforts have been made by the government to improve safety on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, including road upgrades, improved signage, and checkpoints to monitor vehicle safety. However, the challenging terrain and adverse weather conditions remain persistent challenges.
While authorities attribute the high frequency of road accidents to the mountainous terrain that is prone to landslides and falling rocks, many from the valley believe there is more to the problem.
Experts also believe the Kashmir valley's absolute dependence on the route has led to the region's geographic isolation. The road is often closed due to bad weather conditions and in winter, the problem is aggravated by severe snowfall.
On 16 March this year, the much-awaited T-5 tunnel at Panthyal in the Ramsu area of Kashmir’s Ramban district became open to the public. This 870-meter-long tunnel was completed in four years, incurring a cost of INR 100 crores.
The Panthyal stretch of the strategic national highway (NH44) was the project’s most vulnerable portion; it was considered a death trap by drivers and commuters because of frequent landslides.
In September last year, increased landslides and geological instability halted transportation along the corridor, causing a loss of more than INR 1,500 crores to the apple industry, the backbone of Kashmir’s economy.
The losses from the road closure led to valley-wide protests by fruit growers and merchants. The Kashmir Valley produces about 75 percent of the apple crop in India and contributes about 8.2 percent to the GDP of the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir.
From 1947 to till this date, former rulers played politics over this all important highway, which connects Kashmir with the rest of the country. Instead of developing it, they kept on talking about opening alternative routes.
It has been 17-years since the centre approved construction of tunnel on the Mughal Road, the project is yet to see the ray of the light.
The project was approved in 2004, when the PDP shared power with Congress in the state. The proposal was for seven-kilometer long tunnel between Zaznar and Chathapani at 3000 meters altitude on the 230-year-old Mughal road.
The Mughal Road, which goes through Shopian to Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu, lies close since November every year.
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi during his visit to Kashmir in 2015 had announced Rs 80,000 crore package for building 'Naya Jammu and Kashmir'.
The package included money for constructing new roads and highways. The work on turning Srinagar-Jammu NH into an express highway was carried on at a snail's pace, which led to the frequent closure of the road. It provided the leaders of the political parties, with a chance to mislead the people.
Widening the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway (NH44) has been a long-standing infrastructure development project aimed at improving road connectivity and reducing traffic congestion on this vital route. The widening of this highway is crucial due to its strategic importance in connecting the northernmost part of India, Jammu and Kashmir, with the rest of the country.
The primary objective of widening the highway is to enhance its capacity to accommodate a larger volume of traffic. A wider road can help alleviate congestion, improve traffic flow, and reduce travel times.
One of the major aspects of the widening project involves expanding the highway from its existing two-lane configuration to a four-lane highway. This expansion typically includes adding additional lanes for both directions of travel, as well as improving road infrastructure such as bridges and culverts.
Widening the highway in the hilly and mountainous terrain of Jammu and Kashmir presents various engineering challenges. These include navigating difficult terrain, ensuring the stability of road structures on steep slopes, and managing environmental concerns.
Expanding the highway often requires land acquisition, which can be a complex process. The government must acquire land from private landowners or address any legal and environmental concerns associated with land acquisition.
The widening project requires significant financial resources. Funding for the project may come from the central government, state government, and potentially through public-private partnerships (PPPs) or external loans.
The widening of NH44 is typically carried out in phases, with different sections of the highway being widened over time. This phased approach allows for more efficient project management and funding allocation.
Widening the highway can have a positive impact on safety by reducing the risk of accidents caused by congestion and providing better road conditions for drivers.
Improved road connectivity can have a positive economic impact by facilitating the movement of goods, promoting tourism, and boosting economic development in the region.
Environmental assessments are typically conducted to ensure that the widening project does not harm local ecosystems and that necessary mitigation measures are implemented to protect the environment.
(The author senior staffer Greater Kashmir)