Kashmir’s Highway Blues!
Fragility of Jammu-Srinagar National Highway (NH44) is a constant pain in the neck of Kashmir’s economy and social life. Unplanned and unimaginative approaches by respective governments has left this sole connect between Valley and rest of the country vulnerable.
In 1926, Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh developed Srinagar-Banihal-Jammu cart road, passing through the Pir Panjal range of mountains, as an alternative motorable road to connect the two regions —Valley and Jammu — and named it as Kashmir Highway.
After 1947, the road became the only surface link to connect the Valley with the rest of the country. Since then, however, the 300-km long road, now called Srinagar-Jammu National Highway (NH44), has time and again, brought miseries and fatal casualties to the people of the region because of its treacherous topography.
Come winter, the road gets closed for days and weeks, stranding passenger vehicles and trucks loaded with commodities. There are numerous bone-chilling accounts from those who have experienced sufferings due to the sudden closure of the road during winters at different points of time in the past.
The latest victims were two persons from Kupwara, who died on the highway while their vehicle had been stranded due to a heavy snowfall, recently. They died in their vehicle overnight and their bodies were recovered in the morning, on January 24.
Snowfall during winters and landslides in rainy seasons trigger havoc to the stranded travelers and the rough terrain, narrow paths, and blind curves at several places of the road cause fatal accidents throughout the year. According to official data compiled by the Traffic Police Department and District Police Ramban, as many as 1,750 people have died and 12,131 got injured in 8,128 road accidents that occurred on the highway during the past decade – from 2010 to 2020. Officials attribute these accidents to the increasing volume of traffic and the rocky terrain.
The vital road is virtually a lifeline for more than 6.5 million people of the Valley, because of their dependence on the only highway for the supplies of essential commodities such as rice, grocery, vegetables, mutton, poultry, petroleum, LPG, kerosene, and so on.
Considering the importance of the highway, government of India initiated a road widening project to make it a four-lane and all-weather road in 2011. National Highways Authorities of India (NHAI) awarded the work to Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) and the Gammon India. The four-laning of the highway, whenever completed, would shorten the distance between Srinagar and Jammu by fifty kilometers and will reduce the travel timing by half.
However, the project has missed several deadlines thus far. Officials say that the completion of work is expected by 2022. They say that the main hindrance in road building turns up in the stretch falling in Ramban District, which is almost a central point of the 300 km long highway. They say a 24-kilometer stretch from the main town of Ramban to Ramsoo village of the district is the most problematic zone in terms of its weak soil conditions and the surrounding geography.
Similarly, the construction of the 356 km Baramullah-Srinagar-Jammu Rail link, which was declared a National Project of India in 2002, has also missed several timelines and the work is nowhere near completion. The scheduled completion date for this project was initially fixed at 15 August 2007.
Although, Udhampur-Katra track from the side of Jammu and Baramulla-Banihal in the Valley is functional, however, the middle path from Banihal to Katra, spread on 111 Kms is yet to be completed. Lieutenant Governor has recently asked railways to complete the remaining part between Katra and Banihal by August 15, 2022. Experts say the most challenging part of the project would be constructing the highest railway bridge, 359 meters above the river bed. The bridge under construction is the most crucial link between Katra and Banihal.
Clearly, there seems to be no hope for immediate relief to the people from the miseries caused by the treacherous Srinagar-Jammu National Highway.
To grasp more information on the topic and to have more understanding of the issue, ‘Kashmir Images’ spoke to several people, who, one way or the other, are related with the project or are having knowledge about the ongoing construction of a four-lane road and a rail link.
As far as the construction of Srinagar Jammu four-lane highway is concerned, the most problematic area on the site falls in Ramban.
Apart from topographical disorientation, there are also several other problems such as land acquisition from the villagers and issues with the forest department, and so on. For example, when we started work on this project and allotted the work to Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) in December 2015, barely a month later the work was stayed by the court.
During the work, we also faced tremendous problems in terms of soil erosion and massive landslides to the extent that we had to change the planned project and realigned it, with the addition of some tunnels, bridges, culverts, and flyovers, and so on.
The most problematic zone is spread on the 22-kilometer stretch at Nashri, Digdol and Panthyal. The Nashiri-Ramban stretch is the worst for the construction, because there are several dangerous curves and slippery conditions. Many places around are prone to landslides. We lost five kilometers long portion of the newly constructed road here due to soil sinking. This segment of the road will take time in completion; however, we will complete the construction of the Qazigund-Banihal tunnel very soon. Presently, we are focusing on the work of 12 kilometer stretch near Ramban.
I have been reporting about the issues related to the construction of four-lane highway, since the work was started in this district.
Of 300 kilometers of Srinagar Jammu Highway, the stretch from Udhampur to Banihal was the only portion where it took the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) years to get work started. Initially, no construction company turned up for the tendering because of the hazardous topography of the region. The NHAI tried inviting tenders four-five times during first four years, but in vain. Then, they enhanced the construction cost by 43 percent in order to allure the companies for the job.
Finally, the work was awarded to Gammon India and Hindustan Construction Company (HCC). Gammon was given Udhampur to Ramban stretch and HCC was granted Ramban to Banihal area for the work. The 37-kilometer Ramban-Banihal path is considered the most treacherous portion of the highway because of its challenging topography. Ironically, the construction company started building a four-lane road on the surface, straightaway, instead of constructing tunnels to tackles the challenge of landslides at vulnerable places. This proved the worst mistake. Mountain digging and the earth cutting process caused soil erosions at different places of the road and put the area at more risk to the landslides. Later, the company realigned its construction plan to incorporate several tunnels in it, particularly in the area of Ramban to Makarkote, a 15-kilometer stretch.
Meanwhile, things like subletting the work to local contractors, land acquisition issues, intervention by the local politicians, corruption, and so on has worsened the matters regarding the construction of the road.
Presently, the construction work is going on at a very low pace. Nobody knows how much further time the project will take. It has already missed several timelines so far.
Ramban-Banihal stretch of the highway is called ‘maut ka kuan’ (a well of death) because of its treacherous geography. As one of the contractors affiliated with HCC on this project, I can tell you that it is not an easy job to build a four-lane road in this area. Sometimes, our construction work at different places gets destroyed either by land sinking or due to the landslides.
There are some other problems as well, which are causing delay in the work. For instance, those who have given their land for road widening are up in arms, for not being compensated enough by the administration. They are protesting and rightly so. The authorities had set compensation rate of 11,000/per square meter for the land acquisition in 2002. Even after 18 years the landowners are being offered the same price. Likewise, the local contractors are being given the same rates for their work, which was decided almost two decades ago. We are working on the project as we have no other option. We have bought vehicles and machines after taking huge loans from banks. We have to pay the EMI’s. Therefore we do not have any option but to work on low rates. Due to all these reasons, everyone affiliated with this project works half-heartedly.
As a matter of fact, the Srinagar Jammu highway is neither a natural and nor a historical road of this region. This road was carved out from a cart road in the 20th century. Furthermore, this road, even after it is built as a four-lane road, will not be reliable because of the weak mountains, it passes through. These mountains at several places might collapse with time. For sure, there will be always one or another problem with this road and it will not be fully reliable.
Kashmir has only two natural and historical roads. One of them is Srinagar Rawalpindi road and the second historic Mughal road.
Both the roads were closed down after 1947. I remember Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah had initiated to reopen the Mughal road during his tenure. His government created a separate division for reconstructing the Mughal Road. Hussain Muhammad was the first Chief Engineer of this project. In those days, Executive Engineer for the Mughal Road Division would be based in Shopian town. However, the road could not be completed due to unknown reasons. In the recent past, Mughal road project was taken up again when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister. He had allocated sufficient funds for this project. But again, unfortunately, still the road was not fully built. A seven-kilometer long tunnel from Zanzar and Chattapani is needed to be built to make this a reliable all-weather road. In my opinion, work on the Mughal road should be restarted so that it can be used as an alternative road to connect Kashmir with the outside world.
The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway is a ‘jugular vein’ for the overall economy of Kashmir. Frequent closure of the highway in winters and in rainy seasons draws a huge impact on our economy. Our 96 percent of consumer items are imported through this highway. Ideally, this road should be open 24×7, round the year. The moment these supplies get halted due to the closure of the road, it starts causing a huge loss to the economy itself.
The shortage of the essentials and price hike are immediate fallout of the closure of the road. Due to the pathetic condition of this highway, transportation charges are high and eventually, prices of products constantly go up. For instance, a truck load transportation charge from Jalandhar or Ludhiana to Srinagar should be 6–7 thousand rupees, but due to the worst condition of the road, it is Rs 20–22 thousand to fray a truckload of commodities to Srinagar from these places. Sometimes these trucks get halted for days and weeks on the highway. Our export channels also get impacted by this. When our fruit-laden trucks get stranded on the way, the fruit gets spoiled.
The bad condition of the road is also one of the obstructions in tourism growth of the Valley. For tourism, it is important that the highway remains open all the time. Similarly, for industrialization, a good and smooth highway is a basic requirement. There should be no break in the import of the raw materials and exporting of commodities. Our economy has hugely suffered due to this unpredictable highway.
The National Highway 1A now NH 44 from Ramban to Banihal, passes through number of week rock zones mostly comprising of phyllites, slates and crushed sandstones. The bed rocks are overlain by thick slope wash and scree deposits and fossil slides which always remain susceptible to sliding particularly during incessant rains. The bed rocks in this sector are dipping at high angles of 50 to 80 degrees. In addition this road stretch is traversed by number of regional and local faults including Panjal Thrust at 163 km from Jammu and two local faults at and around Makerkot. The main week zones occur at Seeri, Nera, Marog, Fagla (sinking area at 160 km controlled by a local fault), near Ramsu (171-173 km) and Panthial Shooting stone area (168-169 km). These week zones are intervened by granitic and metamorphic rocks which are highly jointed and are susceptible to rock falls and shooting stones. Rocks being highly crushed and steep slopes covered by loose sediments, the whole stretch has been marred by landslides and debris flows for decades.
Unplanned and ruthless excavation for road widening has aggravated the already fragile slopes for debris flows and slope instability. One thing that needs to be kept in mind is not to disturb the angle of repose during slope cutting which varies from 30 to 37 degrees depending upon the type of slope materials involved. Off-course deforestation on highly vulnerable slopes has contributed to soil erosion and destabilization of slopes. Even the principal of muck disposal has not been followed and the downslopes of the road have also been destroyed by sliding the debris downslope and at places into the river. The machines have been deliberately used to create accommodation space by toe cutting which has resulted in sliding and debris flows. If the set norms of excavation and proper planning would have been followed, the present scenarios of the highway would not have been created. It was advisable to plan a parallel road to the existing one at a higher elevation instead of disastrous planning of constructing four lane highway by destroying the existing one. With available technology now it is advisable to make new tunnels in this part of the highway instead of widening along the existing road.