Inflationary highway, or a deathtrap?

  • Shabir Ibn Yusuf
  • Publish Date: Feb 24 2019 3:35AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 24 2019 3:35AM
Inflationary highway, or a deathtrap?Photo: Kashmir Ink

Considered a lifeline for peoples of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions of the state, the 300-km-long Jammu-Srinagar highway has become a virtual deathtrap for passengers both during summers and winters.

Frequent closure of the road often also results in shortage of essential commodities in Kashmir and leads to a steep escalation in prices of essentials, including petroleum products, LPG, and edibles like mutton, vegetables and fruits. In recent weeks, because of the closure of highway due to fresh snowfall, thousands of people were stranded in Jammu and struggled to meet their daily expenses.

Local hotels charged them exorbitantly and many poor stranded passengers slept under the open sky at Jammu bus stand. Several Sikh and Kashmiri Muslim volunteers provided food to the stranded people who ran short of money, but no help came from the government quarters.

Official sources say most stranded people had come to meet the Governor in delegations, like daily-wagers, casual labourers and aggrieved farmers. They were neither given appointments by the Governor’s office nor were they able to return to the Valley. The height of apathy is that the government did not even issues a circular directing hotel owners in Jammu not to overcharge from their guests.

Most of the stranded passengers were penniless and it was the duty of the governor-led administration to take care of them, said a stranded commuter. In the wake of the closure of the highway, the airlines operating on the Srinagar-Jammu route arbitrarily charged fares between Rs 15,000 and Rs 18,000 for a ticket, a hike of 500 percent compared to prices on the sector during normal days.

The hike is unprecedented given the fact that destination falls within a distance of 300 kilometers. On a normal day, airfares between Jammu and Srinagar range from Rs 2500 to 3000 a seat. Besides this, intermittent closure of the highway for weeks together has resulted in a shortage of commodities in Kashmir, leading to sharply escalated prices of many essentials including LPG and mutton, vegetables and fruits. Prices of vegetables and fruits also increased by Rs 20/kg to Rs 30/kg after the closure of the highway.

Owing to the shortage of essentials, the divisional administration of Kashmir ordered rationing of fuel like petrol, diesel and LPG.

During nearly over two months the crucial highway was closed for traffic for over a month, official data reveals. 

“The closure was because of landslides and shooting stones,” officials said, adding that it took them a day to clear two landslides along the road recently. During the ongoing winter, officials said the highway was closed due to multiple landslides at Panthal, Ramban and other places, triggered by heavy rains and snow, cutting Kashmir off from the rest of the world.

Inspector general of police for traffic, Alok Kumar said his men were trying their best to keep the road open.

“When there are landslides and shooting stones what can we do?” he exclaimed. “It is natural and we can’t stop it.” The highway is in a very bad condition as landslides, shooting stones and sinking areas pose a threat to thousands of passengers traveling along it. With its closure, people of the ill-fated valley are cursing all the previous regimes for failing to open alternate routes to ensure enough supply of essentials during winters.

“Over a 100-km-long stretch of the highway from Jawahar tunnel (Banihal) to Bali Nullah Udhampur is dangerous and in a bad condition,” a senior traffic police official said.

“More than 20 places in this sector are one-way and slide-prone including Bali nallah, Amar Cheshma, Nashri, Karool, Ramban, Seri, Kelamore, Fagmoola, Digdool, Khooni nullaha, Pantihal, Magarkoot, Ramsoo, Nachilana, Chamalwas and Shatani Nullaha.”

He said these landslides come down on the road not only in rainy days but sometimes also on sunny days, leading to the suspension of traffic for hours together. Work on the four-laning of Udhampur-Banihal stretch of the highway started in 2015 and was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

According to an official source, about 50 percent of the work has been completed on the Udhampur-Ramban stretch, while this figure is merely 15 percent for the more crucial Banihal-Ramban stretch. Initially, no company was ready to take up the work on the Udhampur-Ramban sector because of the “difficult terrain”. However, later the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) increased the contract rates and the project was taken over by Gammon India, one of the largest physical infrastructure construction companies in India.

The company, according to the contract, was supposed to widen and excavate 43-km stretch, while the remaining 36-kms was handed over to the Hindustan Construction Company.

These companies, however, sub-contracted the construction to sub-companies, which were allegedly struggle to complete the projects in time owing to lack of expertise.

On the other hand, construction of Banihal-Qazigund four-laning is stalled because of financial crunch, and the Nauyuga construction company, its executing agency, and the NHAI are allegedly acting as mute spectators to this failure, official sources say. The Nauyuga was tasked with completing a two-tube tunnel on the Banihal-Qazigund stretch, but for the past eight months work on the tunnel has been stalled due to alleged financial constraints within the company. The work on both Banihal-Ramban and Srinagar-Qazigund sections has been much delayed as well, the sources say.

Moreover, the NHAI has revised many deadlines on the 66-km-long Srinagar-Banihal stretch, which has witnessed only 69.38 percent work in the past more than six years.

The work on the stretch was started in 2011 and its initial deadline was 2014. However, the project which was allotted to Hyderabad-based construction company, Ramky Infrastructure by the NHAI has missed four deadlines so far, the latest being June 2016.

Senior HCC official, Naseer Ahmad Masoodi said that 36-km Ramban-Banihal stretch is being constructed at a cost of Rs 1783 crore with six tunnels between Ramban and Banihal.

“The plan to construct more tunnels is under consideration,” he said, adding that they are waiting for a “necessary nod”.

Masoodi said, difficult terrain, erratic weather and plying of 8,000 vehicles on Srinagar-Jammu highway daily posed big challenges to them. “The slow pace of work is because we want traffic to ply hassle-free,” he said.