Is J&K Administration prepared for winter 2020-21?

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BY: Arka Chakraborty and Kasturi Guha

Jammu and Kashmir is one of the coldest regions in India. Winter in the Union Territory sets in late October and lasts till early March. The temperature in the two regions varies with Jammu experiencing an average temperature of 6 to 20 degrees and Kashmir an average temperature of (-2) to 12 degrees. With snowfall adding to the natural beauty of the region, it is not an exaggeration to call a winter-bound J&K paradise on earth. However, the consecutive failures of the state and the UT administrations to keep the electricity distribution system and the essential amenities delivery mechanisms intact turn this ‘paradise’ into a near-hellscape for the inhabitants. After the failure of the UT administration to tackle the winter situation last year, it is the time for LG Sinha’s administration to face its first snow test. Whether the present dispensation will fare any better this winter than the previous dispensation depends on its capability to learn lessons from previous year’s winter experiences and formulate and execute informed action plans for the upcoming winter period.

Winter Woes of Yesteryears

In spite of the increased accuracy of weather forecasts and the resultant advance knowledge the people receive of impending snowfall, the successive governments have failed to use that knowledge to take measures, adequate enough to minimize the impact on life. Granted that after years of decimated winter chills, a sudden drop in average winter temperature and heavy snowfall since the last two-three years has caught the administration off-guard, but a year’s experience should have been enough to learn and adapt. Instead, the fairly repetitive events of the last few years have served to exhibit the administration’s inadequacy in implementing measures to protect people from the vagaries of winter.

The outdated network of transmission lines is often the first casualty of snowfall, with electric poles breaking down under the pressure of snow, branches, or fallen trees. For example, the November 2019 snowfall was estimated to have resulted in the breakdown of about 5000 electric poles. This results in unscheduled power curtailment across the valley, leading to the loss of most of the electricity-based heating systems that the people have increasingly come to rely on to combat the cold. This becomes life-threatening in areas where the temperature can well drop below the freezing point. At night, areas affected by the power curtailment are plunged into darkness, with candles being the only way to counteract the darkness.

Power shortage results in the termination of water supply to various regions as the PHE department needs electricity to run its filtration plants. Fuel-based generators and electricity-based invertors quickly become useless, as do electronic gadgets. The transportation system becomes jeopardized.

Heavy snowfall and the government’s failure (to varying degrees) to employ effective snow clearing mechanisms immediately results in debris, deluge, uncleared snow and fallen branches and trees to block off surface communication. Even if the administration is able to clear the snow from the highways and the arterial roads on a priority basis in a day or two, the streets and lanes in the interior remain blocked for days on end, causing significant public misery. This, especially, proves dangerous for patients who are in a vulnerable condition and require to be quickly delivered to hospitals. During the February 2019 snowfall, a pregnant woman from Adoora village in Baramullla was carried to the hospital on a make-shift stretcher, the video of the incident went viral on social media. The higher altitudes suffer the most as they are cut off from the rest of the valley for the longest time. Air travel also remains affected as flights to and from the Srinagar airport are generally canceled due to the snowfall.

As transport and communication system comes to a grinding halt, the supply of essential commodities is the one to be affected next. The scarcity of essential commodities results in skyrocketing of prices in local markets.

Horticulture is one of the most valuable assets of J&K and has the potential to grow into massive economic support for the UT, if nurtured properly. However, the heavy snowfall every year greatly damages the orchards, the trees breaking down from the load of the snow, which affects production for years to come. The snowfall of November 03, 2018, had already dealt a significant blow to the orchards. Even so, the November 2019 snowfall was even more deadly, with 35% of the orchards reportedly being affected according to the preliminary estimates of Horticulture Kashmir, the ones in Shopian, Baramulla and Kupwana being the worst hit. Also, the Agriculture sector suffers heavy damaged every year due to the snowfall.

According to a preliminary survey conducted on November 7, 2019, 70% of Kashmir’s saffron produce was affected due to the snowfall.

Accidental deaths are another unfortunate facet of Kashmir snowfalls. Last November, nine people reportedly died of accidents due to the snowfall.

Successive administrations have had to deal with varying degrees of failure in their efforts to minimize and control the damage due to heavy snowfall. The UT administration last year under the leadership of LG Girish Chandra Murmu was woefully unprepared. Generally, the snow clearing machines are ready and start clearing snow almost immediately after the snowfall begins. Last November, however, the snow clearing mechanism remained inactive until a day after the beginning of snowfall. As a result, the upper reaches of the region were completely cut off.

The communication ban imposed following the revocation of the special status of J&K caused huge inconvenience to the travelers as they could not confirm the status of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, as well as they, had no chance of knowing the flight cancellations.

It would be remiss to not mention the fact that the inhabitants of many foreign countries, that receive much heavier snowfalls, don’t face any problems because of the effective handling of the situation by their capable administrations.

The UT Administration looks forward to undertaking “adequate measures” for the upcoming winter

As the winter approaches in Jammu and Kashmir, the UT administration under the leadership of Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha is gearing up to face the heavy snowfall that had caught the Murmu administration off guard last year. Several meetings have been conducted under the chairmanship of high-ranking officials (LG Sinha, Chief Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam, Principal Secretary of PDD Rohit Kansal, Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Pandurang K Pole, Advisor to the LG Baseer Khan) where senior officers of different departments were present and plans are being mapped out as to what to do to minimize the impact of winter.

Efficiency of the heating arrangements to be taken into consideration at various health institutions and examination centres, the Deputy Commissioners were directed to assess and maintain sufficient stock of winter fuel. Additionally, the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir was asked to ensure stockpiling of at least two months’ supply of firewood, fuel, food grains, and medicines for the snow-bound remote areas.

As commanded by the Chief Secretary to the Power Development Department, an elaborate re-examination of the utility of existing transformers, transmission lines, buffer transformers, poles, electrical equipment, and repair workshops.  Along with the effective monitoring of the reported failures of power distribution & transmission channels, timely repairs, and replacement of the damaged equipment to ensure uninterrupted power supply during the harsh winter months, besides securing the existing electrical infrastructure against extreme weather idiosyncrasies. Advisor to the Lt. Governor Baseer Khan was informed that 225 km conductor and 5000 poles are kept as a buffer stock to meet eventualities.

Establishment of winter control rooms to oversee and resolve grievances regarding power, water, essential supplies, health services, road connectivity, and emergency evacuation/rescue.

Rationalising the deployment of snow clearing machinery and equipment with special focus on tourist circuits, hospitals, emergency centres, and other essential services installations.

Under the supervision of the Chief Secretary, the Deputy Commissioners of Jammu, Ramban, Anantnag, and Kulgam districts have been asked to review the emergency arrangements to be provided to the stranded passengers on the national highway with regard to essential services, and temporary accommodation in accordance with the COVID-19 SOPs and protocols.

Setting a deadline to repair and reclaim transformers so that buffer stock of such transformers would be added besides the repairing of transformers in the normal course of time.

Establishing divisional control rooms in all divisions of distribution division, he directed the concerned to set up a dedicated 24X7 public grievance center with sufficient staff to cater to the consumers’ complaints.

An additional infrastructure under SAUBHAGYA, Rs 50 crore each have been sanctioned for Kashmir and Jammu divisions to replace wooden poles and barbed wires and directed to concerned officers to issue tenders for the work so that an entire village would be taken for the up-gradation of the power system.

The MED has informed that 211 snow clearing machines are ready to be deployed in all districts. Besides, 4 high-end snow clearing machines will be imported from Italy, 3 of which will be deployed in the valley. Snow clearance work will be done on a priority basis, with hospitals and highways high on the priority list. The LG instructed for snow control rooms to be established in every district by 15th October so that snow clearance operations can be carried out smoothly both mechanically and manually.

The SMC has been instructed to install dewatering pups in all waterlogged areas.

Advisor to the Lt. Governor Baseer Ahmed Khan suggested that rapid action teams should be kept ready to respond to damages in emergency situations.

A power curtailment schedule should be in place. Metered areas should experience fewer power cuts so that the unmetered areas are encouraged to go for metering. Srinagar and Jammu should get a 24/7 power supply, as per the LG’s wish. New girds/receiving stations have been commissioned and augmented, so fewer power cuts are being expected in both metered and unmetered zones this year.

The LG stressed the quality of the transformers procured so that their shelf-life remains longer. He also instructed for the preparation of an action plan to lower the damage rate of transformers to the national average.

The LG offered the services of the Raj Bhavan choppers for medical emergencies in addition to the heli-services offered by the Central government in cut-off areas like Tangdhar, Gurez, Keran, Machhil.

Is J&K prepared enough?

The recent preparations that the LG Sinha administration is taking are quite encouraging. The government’s priorities are quite clear this time and it seems like they have a plan. The highest priority of the government is to minimize power outages in general and eliminate any unscheduled power outages in metered areas so that the locals are well aware of when the power curtailment is going to occur and are prepared for the same. This in turn will ensure steady and regular water supply. The snow clearing machines, according to the MED, are kept at ready so that immediate snow clearance can commence and surface communication and transportation can continue without much delay. This will ensure an uninterrupted supply of essentials to most of the region. The higher reaches that are cut off from the rest of the valley due to snowfall will be given special attention by dumping enough resources there for the locals’ convenience.

However, the “foolproof plan” of the administration leaves out the fact that high-speed internet is still banned in most parts of the UT. As a result, the public will face difficulties in receiving information about emergency situations or urgent cancellations like last year. The government has to ensure that measures are adopted to keep communication with the public intact.

Also, there was no mention of how to protect the horticulture and the agriculture sectors of the region in the meetings. Every year, these sectors sustain great damage due to heavy snowfall, as mentioned earlier, with the horticulture sector facing the ill effects for many years. This is one of the major factors that keep the sectors from reaching their full potential. Engineering mechanisms must be adopted to at least protect the orchards from the snow. Until then, the government has to take a cue from the 2018 administration (which declared its November 03 snowfall a calamity and hence compensated the horticulture sector adequately) to heavily compensate the horticulturists and agriculturists for their losses.

Some of the ‘pre-modern’ engineering mechanisms that are in fact more suited for the Kashmiri weather (ex: kitchen hearths, thick outer walls and wood/mud floors) should be brought back while being adjusted with modern realities in order to better equip the public to face the weather, for which the ‘modern’ concrete buildings are found to be lacking.

It is clear that the LG Sinha administration is trying to learn from previous years’ experiences and taking measures to face this year’s snowfall. Therefore, the right question is not whether the administration is prepared to face the crisis, but whether it is prepared enough to do so effectively. It has certainly left some of the hardest-hit sectors out of its purview for now, which is a worrying sign. The people will have to wait till November to see how the government faces the snow test this time.

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