In the 52-seater JKSRTC bus, I boarded at the busy Baramulla market, the common complaint of Uri residents, that hit my eardrums, is to revamp the road to Uri. The bus runs through vast plains and rugged hills meandering through small villages that were once a transit stations in British India. The relaxing cinematics of the mountain range holds unkempt secrets we would attempt to unfold in this write-up.
Road to ‘Gulistan’
“Syed Ali Hamadani used the Uri route to enter Kashmir. Abul Fazal’s Akbar Nama also mentions it. Akbar’s exit and Mongolian invasion happened via this road.” Sona-Ullah Handoo, an educationist, has written a detailed account in Akaas- a booklet about the history of Uri. “Rinchen Shah, Kashmir’s first Muslim ruler also used this route to enter Kashmir,” inks Handoo.
The Union government has sanctioned the 4-laning of the Srinagar-Uri section of the Highway with a budget outlay of Rs. 823.45 crores. Uri needs it urgently. “Sometimes, even ambulances get stuck in traffic jams, this project will help erase the transport tensions for the border belt.” Yasir Aftab, a local social activist, told me as I alighted the bus at the crowded Uri market.
Legend has it that a hermit who meditated here named it Ouri (udder of a cow). I traversed the erstwhile Jehlum Valley Cart Road. By its low elevation, it was once the only all-season road linking Kashmir with other parts of the globe. “The primary danger is slippery slopes and the rubble on the roads. The government failed to make our villages accessible in the last seven decades. Why?” asks Ovais Kakroo, Nambla based businessman.
Highways are integral to a country’s functioning. A rapid expansion in the makeover of a solid road network will accelerate, what Nitin Gadkari calls, a robust economy. But the road to Uri is patchy. Macadam is of poor quality, allege locals, and no road has any safety measures like parapets or railing.
In the recent past, colorful heavily laden trucks would nose their way to Salamabad from another side of the great divide. Not anymore. Uri-Poonch Road, commonly called Aliabad Road, was permanently closed for security reasons after the 1965 War. Poonch is just 40 miles away from Uri. This all-weather road is a safe passage (not accident-prone) through Haji Peer sector. The reopening of this route will connect Uri with the Jammu division and it will reduce travel time. The severity of winter dictates a shift in routines and lifestyles creating unique commerce in the mountains. Uri is not about sunshine and rainbow.
Where is Vikaas?
Villagers vote for Vikas - the roads get mended, the transportation is provided, and better job opportunities are created. But some self-styled custodians of our villages hijack the development works meant for the welfare of the village. Swachh Bharat Mission-Grameen is the Hon’ble PM’s pilot project. Under this scheme, a one-time grant given to villages helps them create infrastructure for cleanliness drives. Villages with 150 households get a minimum of INR 7 lakh under the individual household latrine scheme.
“Half of the population defecates in open in this hamlet.” Abdul Rehman Sheik, nation-builder of Nowshera gateway-to-Uri, told me.
Uri is India’s important borderline. In the Uri sub-division, Boniyar is a centrally located place. Here, I met Abid Alam, an educator, to know the beats of Boniyar. “Several villages like Chotali, Maidanan, Gagarhill, Lajdi, Jabdi, and Dudran are deprived of communication connectivity.” Abid talked about the pre-fabricated sheds used as classrooms in GDC Boniyar as no new structure is completed. The obsolete buildings of Boys and Girls senior secondary schools are unfit to accommodate roughly 1.5K students.
A major portion doesn’t have a regular communication network in this “Aman ka Chaman.” Students and patients face immense hardships for basic needs and necessities as the emerging superpower is yet to connect the hilly hamlets for smooth vehicular movements. A faster commute is still a distant dream for the frontier residents. For the welfare and prosperity of Uri, the union and civil administration have to put double efforts to make it welcoming for tourists.
Politicians came, got legislative berths, and left. Several villagers corroborated the fact that they deprived the voters of the schemes meant to empower them. They, villagers say, have not been able to give them safe passage in the form of community bunkers in the greater risk of shelling. These ill-planned underground structures are inadequate measures to stop them from the hazards of mortar shelling. Many complain that these bunkers are faulty builds as water and snow seep inside.
Commoners have to submit identity proof to go beyond what we call AIOS (Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System). Every tourist goes through strict security screening. In the forested and hilly terrains, a bullet doesn’t seek permission. It arrives unanticipated from Sarhadpaar. In the strained bilateral relations, the 19-year-old landmark agreement is a pinky promise. Sometimes, calm is shattered by a string of actions. But why? Both sides have the same dawn and dusk, the countryside is similar. Violence, locking horns at the border in this case, breeds trauma. It reminds me of a meaningful dialogue by a popular character Danny in a great dramedy “The Meyerowitz Stories”, “It was like walking barefoot through broken glass to get a milkshake. I loved the milkshake, but you know, my feet were bleeding.”
Uri has crucial strategic importance. It is an extraordinary zone. The villages that lie near LOC bear the brunt of shelling. Gunshots echoing in the mountains tell the unheard, unseen & underreported stories. The river flows beside, birds fly sky-high, and the wind blows sideways. Sarhad has miserably failed to stop these creatures. Disabled by mines and shelling at Haji Peer sector, otherwise a silent stream, victims want peace to prevail. To help erase the dark past, the Indian army renovated a coffee shop at the line of control. There is more to it than what meets the eye at Café Freedom. What? “Mazhab nahi sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna” is a signboard installed on this side of the fence. It says a big no to raining shells and roaring guns.
Mohra power project is an asset of Uri. Yasir claimed that it was a source of massive employment generation. The Uri activist further explained how its closure was a great loss in agriculture for local farmers. Established in 1902, Mohra is defunct for the last 29 years. A year ago, it was reported that its revival has delighted the area. “There was no concept of power curtailments in Uri and it used to irrigate our land.”
Life under Control
Life is not easy at the heavily guarded zero-line. Exchange of fire, infiltration bids, mortar shells raining on rooftops & blasting the structures are the security challenges for the forward post located just a stone’s throw away from LOC. The truce between the two warring nations can change the fate of this historical town. Spectators (read tourists) file in, see the tricolor flutter, click selfies and go away but they have no inkling of what it means to live in constant fear on the razor edge.
A week before Hon’ble HM Amit Shah’s recent Varmul visit, it was stated that he chose Baramulla because it was neglected for over 7 decades. It is not a sweeping statement. What do we infer from it? I tossed this question to Huma, Uri born millennial mathematician, near a skywalk at Moulana Azad Road, Srinagar. Huma goes home on weekends. “Look Abid, Uri was governed by a feudal set-up till 1972. Even after we got democratically elected representatives, our socioeconomic condition didn’t change. In the last three years, Uri is on the path of progress since LG admin took over.” Huma opines that favoritism had become the common denominator of the previous representatives. The citizens of Uri continue to wait for the promises to be fulfilled. And waiting is the worst form of torture as Suzanne Collins writes in Mockingjay.
Uri has great potential for religious tourism also. People throng to shrines with fervor. Baba Ghafoor Sahib, Baba Masoom Shah Gazi & Baba Farid-u-Din’s shrines respectively at Peerniya’n, Kamalkote & Garkote are revered. All religious communities live in harmony. There is a large Gurdwara in Paranpila. Sikhs of Salamabad, Hindus of Lagama, Paharis, Gojris, and Kashmiris, all live in communal and social harmony with each other. Arvind Sharma invited me to his home. We toured the temple together. “We never felt threatened or scared here. I repeat. Never. We live like a well-knit family.”
Lagama in a Nutshell
How are Jal Jevan Mission and Har Ghar Jal doing in Uri? Recently protests were registered in Lagama. “Nothing happened.” A government servant pleading anonymity told me. Lagama is known for its Walnut Mandi. But its future seems bleak. Grown organically, the walnuts are of 3 types- Vont (hard), Kaghazi (soft) & Barzul (medium-sized). More than 90% of walnuts in India are grown in Uri. But the devaluation of high-quality walnuts has pushed producers into poverty. “Walnut growers are disappointed as import from California is the reason behind the downfall of this industry.” Shahid Raina, a farmer, told me in the main market Lagama.
The town & the trash
The average footfall in the Uri market is 6K souls, but there is no public convenience. On my way to GDC Uri, I noticed tons of garbage had accumulated as locals dump their waste in the nearby stream, a few meters away from the SDM office. It is full of filth. Municipal Council Uri doesn’t smell the stench it emanates. Why? The residents get no answers. As dusk fell over the town, I searched for a space to stay. The first halt in the mountains reminded me of Mohammad Rafi, “Parbaton ke pedon par Shaam ka basera hai.” The voice is nectar pouring into the ears.
Institute of Hope?
There is no hostel facility for girl students who come from border hamlets like Tilawari, Charunda, Silikote, Kaman, etc. No compound wall since 2005 as the land dispute is sub-judice. Shortage of classrooms and non-availability of transport is another issue. “All three issues will be addressed. We will execute the work soon.” Dr. Shareef-u-Din Khan, the Principal of the college, told me at his office. Off late, GDC Uri has established Rahat Center and IGNOU study center for correspondence learners.
PRI is the soul of Rural Development. Panchayat is not just the name of a building. We need well-educated and qualified youth to sign the development docs. The thumb doesn’t impress anymore. Panchayat has to ensure the availability of restrooms in every household, and the health and mensural hygiene of teenage girls who don’t get easy access to sanitary napkins. ODF status should be granted by a district magistrate after an on-spot verification. Our 75-year-old independent villages are still waiting for an uninterrupted electricity supply. There is a thrust towards rural tourism in new tourism policies formulated. Yojanas are designed to target poor countrymen, not the elite class.
Centrally sponsored schemes like ICDS, launched in 1975 and renamed recently as Mission Poshan, are not doing well in this scattered sector. Parents are aghast because the MDM, launched in 1996, is yet to reach far-off hamlets.
A division within?
The Himalayan tragedy or the dark secret is the linguistic division within the mountains. Recently, a girl student from Nambla was denied a PSP certificate as she happens to speak the Kashmiri language also. She finally dropped out during the counseling session. I visited Nambla, the most populous village of Uri which plays a decisive role in elections, to know the truth. “We have the same pattern of living but we are discriminated against based on the language we speak.”
When the first sun rays of November kissed and cuddled the town, I hurtled towards Kaman. I wish this quake-hit tragic road of battles and cross-border trade will be rebuilt as a four-lane route and hopefully, another phase of the Caravan-e-Aman drives off.
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.