By Sheikh Qayoom
Jammu, Feb 14 (IANS) The harsh winter this season has ensured that the Jammu-Srinagar highway has become a nightmare for both commuters and officials in Jammu and Kashmir.
The nearly 300-km artery is the lifeline for the landlocked Kashmir Valley as all essential supplies are routed through this road.
Whenever the highway gets blocked, prices of food items go up in the troubled Valley. This means that mutton, poultry products and vegetables become very expensive.
Rains in the Ramban-Bannihal sector trigger landslides at multiple places while snowfall in the Bannihal sector along the Pir Panjal mountain range makes the highway impassable.
Hundreds of trucks, light motor vehicles and their occupants have remained stranded on the highway for several days this winter as road clearance operations have to wait for the weather to improve.
“Snow and landslide clearance operations cannot be started as along as it is raining or snowing. We have suffered casualties due to landslides sweeping away our debris-clearing bulldozers along with their operators in the past, said an official of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) that maintains the highway in its most treacherous sectors.
Those who have travelled on the highway and have been unfortunate to have been stranded have horrific tales to tell.
Ali Muhammad Dar, a resident of Badgam district, was stranded at Nowgam in the Bannihal sector for seven days during heavy snowfall in February 2005.
“I was on way to Jammu. After crossing the Jawahar Tunnel there was a fierce snow storm. In less than one hour, seven feet snow accumulated on the road. Luckily we could reach Nowgam village from where the highway ahead was not even visible.
“Villagers gave us shelter in their homes,” he recalled with gratitude.
“After four days the stocks of foodstuffs and charcoal for the firepots exhausted. It
was a nightmare I can never forget till I am alive”, Dar said.
This winter also, the highway has remained closed for many days at a stretch, stranding hundreds of vehicles. On Tuesday, it remained shut for the seventh straight day.
For officials of the traffic department, this is nothing short of a nightmare.
“Technically speaking, during periods when landslides block or wash away portions of the road, it is like regulating traffic on a highway that does not exist,” said an official of the traffic department who did not wish to be named.
The official also made some interesting disclosures.
“Portions of the highway have been allotted to local contractors for road widening.
“During a landslide in these portions, the debris clearance is also done by these people who use manual labourers. Besides being risky, such manual exercises are highly time-consuming.
“This winter, due to the freeze in the Bannihal sector, the daily highway operating time is cut short by a minimum of 8 to 10 hours as no vehicle can be allowed during slippery road conditions,” the official explained.
Despite the construction of a double-lane road from Srinagar to Lower Manda in the Valley and a state-of-the-art Nashri-Chenani Tunnel, the highway continues to remain an ordeal for travellers.
Till the Jawahar Tunnel sector is by-passed by the opening of the under-construction road tunnel between Qazigund and Jammu division and the road widening is completed in the Ramsoo-Ramban sector, the dream of shortening the travel time to four to five hours on the highway will have to wait.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at [email protected])