In the past few years Jammu has witnessed the introduction of many mega projects, often under the urban renewal schemes that have been rapidly altering the landscape of the city. One such mega intervention is the road-widening/realignment projects/schemes whereby the existing width of the road is to be increased.
This involves multi-pronged interventions – from making roads wider, often from two laned to four or more, making some corridors signal free, building flyovers, underpasses and magic boxes. Two types of widening is going on in Jammu-one for decongesting roads and secondly Jammu-Srinagar highway widening. One such project is the four-laning of the 30-km Jammu-Akhnoor highway, part of the ambitious Prime Minister Development Package announced in 2015 by Narendra Modi, but is likely to miss the deadline of 2021 also due to many issues including the non-availability of land and slow pace of work. Declared as National Highway 144-A, the work on this project began in October 2018, but its foundation stone was formally laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from a remote site on February 3, 2019. Right now some contracts are yet to be allotted as the land has not been made available by the district administration, less than 30% of work completed on Canal Head to Ganesh Vihar which started in August 2018, almost negligible work completed on Ganesh Vihar to Khati Chowk which was started in July 2019. It’s shocking that the project construction directly monitored by the Central Government is going on at snail’s pace. Apart from damages to environment due to the felling of 4,379 trees, the construction is emerging as a major health hazard for thousands of people living in the area. National highway Authority has been penalized in the past also for pollution but it seems in Jammu nothing moves the administration. No water sprinkling to settle dust, no noise pollution check, no hazardous waste collection system in place. Local residents have raised their concern time and again but it’s of no use practically as it seems administration is least bothered. There has been no regular monitoring of dust levels in the area by Pollution Control Board to safeguard locals. A project which was to be completed in 30 months may get extended up way beyond stipulated deadline and one can imagine its long term impact on locals but authorities are least bothered. The air residents are breathing in the area is just dust. A look at the houses and trees of the adjacent localities tells the appalled living condition. Respiratory diseases are on the rise. Almost a thousand crore project declared as National Highway-144A is nowhere close to completion and has become a nemesis for the locals. After the approval of the Ring Road from Raya to Nagrota, which is likely to take a huge chunk of traffic heading towards Akhnoor and beyond, passing through 60 villages-54 in Jammu and 6 in Samba district, with no traffic jams and bottlenecks, it will provide a smooth drive through Patti, Bari Brahmana, Murallian, Miran Saheb, Lalyal, Alora, Sohanjana, Gho Manhasan, Karloop, Kangrail, Bhalwal, Kot, Kheri and Jagti. The 8-Km long first phase, which was inaugurated, starts from its Junction with NH-144 (Akhnoor Road) where the Jammu Ring Road intersects through a flyover connecting to Akhnoor road and crosses the Ranbir Canal over steel girder bridge. So the relevance of Jammu-Akhnoor road widening with such a disastrous impact on local population is beyond any justification.
No Social Impact Assessment (SIA) has been done on this project which is most important aspect as this is a process to provide a framework for defining key relevant social issues or risks involved of stakeholders. SIA also give the impact of public/government intervention on the social aspects of the human environment of the affected areas. Akhnoor road has emerged as a significant employer before the start of this project with many mega showrooms and malls along with residential complexes raised with the passage of time as such traditional trade and wholesale markets have come up thereby decongesting main old city. Hundreds of shops opposite canal were thriving with business, including major automobile showrooms, joinery mills, steel frame fabrication workshops, eateries, malls, building material showrooms and small shops, employing thousands and whole area was hustling – bustling with business activities. If a long stretch of road running to 4-5 km is widened, it will impact not only the hundreds who run shops, offices, small businesses, factories and warehouses, but the people employed in those firms, from clerks, salesmen and cleaners – to auto rickshaw drivers, road side hawkers, cobblers, and small food joint owners, who cater to these people and who sometimes employ another set of people and are often an important contributor to household incomes also get badly affected.
Therefore, through a multiplier effect, these linked clusters of local economies are sources of livelihood for thousands in these areas slated for road-widening – which has totally disrupted this local system. Widening of road has caused a rupture to these established links and social networks that have been built over the years, as shops are closed down and hawkers have been pushed out to make way for wider roads. Road-widening or other form of urban renewal slated in and around these areas are sure to take a substantial part of the land and pull down properties built on it, render small holders of land as landless, leave innumerable jobless, force many commercial establishments and in some cases residents too have to relocate further from the centre of their livelihood and social life, leaving tenants and hawkers without access to commercial space and livelihoods. However administration is more inclined to decongestion than worry about the local economy. No one is bothered about displacement and loss of livelihood that is bound to happen and a simple ruthless logic given is people with initial hiccups ‘will find ways and means to survive, but for these inhabitants and employees it’s a nightmare, a bolt from blue. The outcome of the specific changes can simply impact attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of function which results from activities of finding a job and avoiding getting mentally sick. But no such SIA has been done for this project which actually means the damage to locals in the form of economic losses as well as other allied losses like health and mental torture have not been taken into account.
Also not taken into account are the three most damaging effects of road construction and management; noise, dust and vibrations. Noise mainly occurs during road construction phases and continuous exposure can lead to permanent deafness or hearing issues or other health issues. Dust is created during the construction of gravel roads and unbound aggregate layers. Excess dust production can be treated by a range of means such as watering and by using dust binders near houses, but nothing is visibly available at construction site. This problem is further going to add up as soon as desilting of Ranbir canal starts. Vibration can be caused by uneven road surfaces; heavy equipment used and impact of dumping heavy material as such can pose significant impacts and problems to houses close to the highway resulting in cracks and in extreme cases collapse of structures. With rainy season not far away one can imagine the disaster locals are going to face this year also. With no alternative road and construction going on simultaneously above or side by side moving traffic, a major accident can occur anytime.
Akhnoor road is not an odd case as in the past also Jammu has paid a heavy price as in the case of Bari Brahamana whole market just got overshadowed by the flyover resulting in collapse of commercial activities. Similar has been the case of entire Jammu-Lakhanpur highway 4 laning which resulted in loss of livelihood of thousands as certain areas like Kunjwani Chowk which were completely bulldozed and certain markets are well below the highway in Gangyal area, as such now with no commercial activities. Same has been the case of Nandani, Saketra, Tikri, Jhajjar Kotli, Rambal and main Udhampur market. Nandni is now a ghost forgotten town with no approach road and once a tourist spot famous for cheese pakoras is no more on tourist map. Same is the case with Kol Kandoli and Nagrota town as due to army objection vehicular traffic has been restricted and result is total collapse of commercial activities of the area. Tikri once a must stop for breakfast for Srinagar bound buses is fighting for survival. Administration sitting in air conditioned offices cannot imagine the disastrous impact local population is having. Same is the story of Rambal and Udhampur Town as by pass road has played havoc with local commercial activities as the main stay of livelihood remains tourism in Jammu. Jhajjar Kotli once a must visit Sunday Tourist Spot for Jammuites is no more even existing despite the approach road as Jammu Tourism Department has just abandoned both park and restaurant as if they never existed. From Ban Toll Plaza onward old road has simply collapsed and is no more motorable.
Has administration taken into account theses Social Impact Assessments before commencing these development projects? It doesn’t seem so as project after project, town after town same stories have been repeated and government has learnt no lessons from the past. Leave alone the humans even birds and animals have suffered immensely as with abandoned commercial activities stray animals have been rendered foodless overnight but when even human apathy and sufferings are not taken into account who will look into miseries of speechless animals. Despite it being COVID-19 pandemic disaster still Jammu is going through a typical phase as government seems insensitive to issues involved and ostrich like approach is not going to help anyone. One has to think now- can Jammu afford this price of development?