Jammu-Srinagar National Highway A ticking time bomb

Kr Swarn Kishore Singh
There were times when Jammu to Srinagar journey was a long affair of 12 hours wherein a morning breeze of the Manda hills marked the beginning of journey, followed by the curves of Nandni, pickles of Manthal and brunch of kulchas in Udhampur, Patisa of Kud, coolness of Patnitop, and the chai pakodas in Batote and rajma chawal along with a full view of Baglihar dam in Peerah. Then came a place wherein throughout the whole stretch of National Highway, River Chenab flows the closest i.e. Ramban, some tea in Panthyal, dry fruits of Ramsoo, and then the last and steepest raise after crossing Banihal town to reach the all popular Jawahar Tunnel. As the sun starts sliding down, we used to reach the plain fields of Lower Munda followed by the crowds of Anantnag and scrawny curves of Awantipora. Finally as we get closer to Srinagar, saffron fields of Pampore welcomed the passengers and after while plying through the banks of Jehlum, we could finally reach the banks of Dal Lake i.e. Dal Gate. This all used to take almost 12 hours and it was not just a journey but a brief tour of soul of Jammu and Kashmir.
Few months ago, it took me even less than 7 hours from Jammu to reach Srinagar but this time it was with three Toll Plazas, enormous dust and immense fear of a sliding shooting stone. River Chenab was never dirtier, the adjoining hills were never so very torn, leave aside the beauty. The adjoining markets are devastated, the air so very polluted that you can’t afford to open the windows of your vehicle due to the immense surrounding dust and smog. Prior to widening project of Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, only thing which created problems for the passengers was a week long blockade in Patnitop somewhere in the month December or January but now the blockade isn’t just for a week per year but for a fortnight every two months. Somewhere in 2015, the work of construction of four laning of Jammu to Srinagar national highway commenced. And yes, it began simultaneously i.e. in the stretch which lies in Kashmir & Jammu. Two big shot construction companies were awarded with the contracts for four laning of Jammu-Srinagar National Highway from Udhampur to Banihal. People were happy as better and wider roads ostensibly translate into strengthening of economy as the local produce could find better markets in shorter times. But then began the debacle and construction companies did unleash the treachery and the real plunder of the resources of the region commenced. These construction companies were working much like East India Company by dividing the local people and bribing the influential ones while keeping the administration in their pockets by offering them something enticing. In 2017, I remember a top official of a construction company while briefing with the progress of the project said since the construction work of the factory of Forest Minister is going on, therefore some of our workers are busy there. Inquisitively I raised a question over the reason for engaging their workers, is it because of the rare expertise or what ? He replied this is called courtesy in our corporate culture.
I was astonished. Similarly bureaucrats ask for plum posting in District Ramban where the maximum stretch of construction work locates; what for ? And why only bureaucrats should have all the fun, every local politicians of every ideological denomination have had their respective share in the work and booty, not to worry abut the expertise in the work. The construction companies delegated the construction work to either politicians turned contractors or contractors turned politicians, what could be probable reasons? It was just to bribe their conscience and make them believe that the welfare of company and the local politicos is mutual and in the meantime the public welfare can go for a walk. And at the end a long time goon has been roped in who brags keeping law under his feet, by the construction companies via a couple of illegal private contracts, while the Governmental agencies sly in slumber. He has thrown caution to the winds while greasing the palms of the administration. It is always painful to see a District Magistrate talking like a salesman of these companies and justifying their misdeeds. The words like “uppar se pressure hai”, “roz ka reporting karni hoti hai Delhi” and xyz neta ke bete ka share hai is company mein, hum kuchh nai kar skte hain ji” is the common expletive of almost all the bureaucrats posted in district Ramban.
The air is polluted to such a magnitude that in a bright sunny day, the visibility on the national highway is so very pathetic that it seeks the operation of headlights of vehicles. The people who are living alongside the national highway are falling sick with chest and lung diseases and this is not just a stray allegation; this has been further ratified with a report of Medical Superintendent, Ramban. So in a way people are being forced onto a road to death just to make sure some companies earn some extra bucks.
And it is not the so-called construction work of NH44 which is inviting doom. The stone crushers and hot mix plants on the outer edge of National Highway and in midst of the residential colonies is also helping the cause to kill the people of the area. What pains the most is the fact that while the administration is enjoying slumber why is the conscience of the political leadership put to auction and that too so very cheaply?
But unfortunately nothing is going to happen and this helplessness finds expression in a poem which I borrow from a book of former Governor of J&K, Jagmohan Ji:
It has happened
And it goes on happening
And will happen again
If nothing happens to stop it.
The innocent know nothing
Because they are too innocent.
The poor do not notice
because they are too poor.
And the rich do not notice
because they are too rich.
The stupid shrug their shoulders
because they are too stupid.
And the clever shrug shoulders
because they are too clever.
The young do not care
because they are too young.
And the old do not care
because they are too old.
That is why nothing happens to stop it.
And that is why it has happened
And goes on happening and will
Happen again.
(The author is an advocate & political and legal analyst)