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Tackle Kashmir’s winter of discontent

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Feb 17, 2017, 6:14 am IST
Updated : Feb 17, 2017, 6:14 am IST

The Army chips in with recovery vehicles wherever it can, but it’s never enough.

A villager walks near a vehicle coverd with snow on Srinagar-Gulmarg Road after heavy snowfall at Tangmarg in Baramulla District of North Kashmir. (Photo: AP/File)
 A villager walks near a vehicle coverd with snow on Srinagar-Gulmarg Road after heavy snowfall at Tangmarg in Baramulla District of North Kashmir. (Photo: AP/File)

Winter is all but over, and life in Kashmir can be quite uncomfortable, specially after the highest recorded snowfall in 25 years. J&K’s infrastructure doesn’t really support this. The “bandobast”, or lack of it, that brings a level of misery in areas on both sides of the lofty Pir Panjal ranges and Ladakh, needs a revamp to cater to the severe winter. However, development related to such revamp has been hostage to the insecurity that prevailed over so many years. The need to treat Ladakh as a virtual arctic zone hasn’t emerged in development plans. The power situation is abysmal and the traditional heating systems in J&K’s mountainous regions have all but disappeared. The fuel situation is critical despite the storage facility at Pampore, as distribution gets paralysed over slippery or snow-laden roads. Over the years, the snow-clearing machinery has not kept pace with the needs of development. The Army chips in with recovery vehicles wherever it can, but it’s never enough.

Among the many effects of winter and low availability of power is the modern-day glitch involving charging of mobile phones. No power means no charge and therefore no means of communications. I never tire of mentioning, and people usually don’t tire of listening to the example I came across in 2011: traders with gensets who charged `75 for one full charge of a mobile—one of the most unique bits of exploitation. The Army took them on as only it can. Overnight, its many workshops and technical units created multiple charging facilities and placed them on wheels, allowing these to be parked at crossings and marketplaces. It was of course free of charge as a goodwill gesture.

As public health centres report absenteeism in large numbers, urban areas still have private clinics a short walk away. Not so rural areas and mountain villages that remain without medical aid. That’s where the Army swings in once again. Very adept at being out at the most unearthly hours, its patrols now transform into medical aid patrols. Women in the family way are evacuated by soldiers with the help of stretchers through the rough and tumble of snow, ice and slush.

We can blame successive governments, but may be it’s just that there are enough excuses to be found, mostly related to the security situation and the inability to push for the needed energy to do something. Terror and turbulence over years has taken its toll of development, and perhaps added to the callousness of administrations and administrators. My experience over many years has shown that there are some outstanding administrators in J&K who can get their act together very quickly, and with splendid results. A case in point is the activation of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road in 2005, as part of the confidence-building measures with Pakistan. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s government was in power. It was a bad winter in 2004-05; termed the year of the snow tsunami. South Kashmir in particular was swamped by heavy snow. Ironically even a few militants were rescued from their hideouts. I was the commander of the Uri Brigade. Around January 26, 2005, I received orders that the Uri-Muzaffarabad road had to be restored to working order to enable the Karvan-e-Aman trans-LoC bus service to be launched. The route hadn’t been in use for many years, was mined in many places, needed security for work to be done to remove the many rockfalls and, most of all, required the facilities of a customs house, immigration post, telecommunications, banks and other things needed to open up a border.

The Army and Border Roads Organisation got the road functional by April 7, 2005 and a fresh bridge laid across the rivulet at Kaman Aman Setu. The Army even cleared up a mined site next to the bridge, flew prefabricated structures from Ahmedabad and built the facilities. The roads and bridges department of the J&K government set up a full tourist reception centre at Salamabad in just six weeks. It gave me a taste of how quickly J&K officials could work when they have deadlines and competition exists. The Army’s breakneck speed of work energised all departments, who would not be left behind.While the security situation may be worrisome, there is no reason why imaginative people-oriented projects can’t be initiated: the capability is all there. Given the mischief that will continue from across the Line of Control, we can’t afford to put development on hold — that means essentially the core areas of ensuring adequate supplies of fuel, food, medicines and power; having the roads clear so that life can’t get paralysed and sufficient focus on health that is affected the most during winters.There is one problem I have always envisaged — the duration of the working season in the Valley and nearby areas. By the time the winter thaw ends, spring is truly upon us and the government back in Srinagar; projects start getting unwrapped from the previous year’s legacy. It takes time for the tempo to build, and by the time that happens a kind of paralysis sets in with bandhs and protest calendars. By late October each year the J&K government again gets into packing mode for the shift to Jammu, the winter capital.

On top of this is the dearth of activity to attract tourists. Skiing is not everybody’s idea of fun and thus can’t be the main attraction. Unless there is an assurance that airports will remain open, and hotels have adequate heating and water, the experience can be hellish. Movement even between Tangmarg and Gulmarg can be unsafe due to the state of the road.

To the Army’s credit, this entire winter its PR efforts revealed the quantum of activities it generated for young people. The government’s physical absence must never deter its officials from taking up activities to bring back normality into the lives of people.

This is the time when militant activity is low, so perhaps it’s a good time to push efforts to change the minds of the people with some positivity — there has been far too much negativity thanks to the activities of the separatists. There are reports of depression among people: this is quite understandable when the climatic conditions are supplemented by the gloom of the environment.

The current government should seek some innovative ways to bring positivity into the environment. On both sides of the Pir Panjal I find people involved in riling each other with critiques about the attitude of the other. As a start, one would strongly recommend that cultural and sports activities, intellectual engagement between people of different regions and other recreational activity be planned through the winter months, and short periods of infrastructural breakdown shouldn’t allow minds to close. Kashmir is really an issue to do with mindsets and negativity. A lot of how that can be overcome depends on people themselves. Incidentally, one wonders why no one in the J&K government has sought an air arm, with a few transport aircraft and helicopters, for its administrative needs.

Tags: mufti mohammad sayeed, ladakh, pampore