Introduction to KashmirForum.org Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.
www.kashmirforum.org

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Ugly Little Truth About the Valley

Ashraf says that last year eight times more people were killed in road accidents than in militancy related incidents. Perhaps Government should forget militants and pay more attention to this Road Rage!

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 66, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Fran├žaise in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)


Roads kill more than Militancy

According to official reports the total number of people killed in militancy related incidents in J & K during 2008 is less than 100. In contrast to this, it has been reported that almost 800 persons were killed and over 5,000 injured in traffic accidents all over the State in the same period. This amounts to a virtual massacre of innocents. The responsibility is not only of the killer roads but there are many mafias responsible for this senseless loss of human lives. Roads have become the worst killers. The latest accident involving a bus which rolled down near Pull Doda killing more than 40 persons is a typical example of this avoidable tragedy. This area has probably witnessed the largest number of casualties. In the real sense of the word it has earned the epithet of the “Killer Road”! The causes are many but all speak of total apathy, gross negligence, and utter insensitivity to loss of human life by the concerned authorities.

First culprits are the roads. There is hardly any road which can be termed perfectly fit and safe for driving. Because of our terrain most of our roads are totally located in the remote mountain areas or pass through similar areas. No doubt keeping a road in perfect condition in the face of the vagaries of weather and the huge amount of vehicular traffic is a tall order, yet some of the most frequented and major roads through mountains could be maintained in better conditions. The national highways are being maintained by very resourceful organisation which has no dearth of funds and machinery. One would not mind the rough driving surface with pot holes but the safety especially on steep turns on deep ravines and gorges is something on which there can be no compromise. It is of utmost importance to have kerbs on these roads through mountain areas. These may not ensure hundred percent safety but could lessen the impact and may even stop a vehicle from going over. It has been observed that most of the passenger bus accidents especially on mountain roads in Doda, Rajouri, and Poonch areas occur because of these vehicles rolling over into gorges. Putting up of some sort of obstructions as concrete kerbs or even steel girder railings at the vulnerable points should be the first charge on the departments maintaining these roads. This may not completely solve the problem as there are several other factors causing these accidents but this measure would to some extent lessen their impact.

The other problem is the road subsidence and the mud slides during rains. This problem again is our own creation especially in regard to subsidence of Doda road. The engineers involved in the setting up of the Baglihar project probably did not make an impact assessment of the resultant lake on its banks. The rise in water level as taught in basic soil mechanics often results in the movement of clayey soils. The road passing along the banks would be automatically subject to these subsidence and sliding movements because of the critical slope. To prevent that they had either to raise concrete breast walls (a very expensive preposition) or totally re-align the road from the river banks. Neither of the two alternatives was undertaken and the result was the recent road disaster. There are many other equally vulnerable stretches on the main highway like Panthial, Khoni Nallah, Nasheri, and so on. Some of these areas are totally unstable and with the shaking these receive every day due to the passing over of thousands of heavy load carriers further destabilises these. There is an urgent need to have an alternate alignment for a four lane solidly built motorway with a couple of modern tunnels like the Mont Blanc tunnel between Jammu and Srinagar to ensure uninterrupted year round access to Kashmir valley. It would be much cheaper than the project of taking the train to Kashmir which is like that typical Persian fable of Farhad digging a canal for Shirin, and the Indian TV show about the unrealistic dreams of Mongheri Lal! In the case of Doda and other districts in the area, it is also essential to upgrade the alternate routes from Kapran-Dessa and Simthan-Chatroo side. We do not have to go by temporary management of the crisis but think of a long term solution.

The next culprit causing these tragic accidents are the motor vehicles used for public transportation. Most of these have outlived their utility and there is absolutely no physical check on the fitness of these vehicles. Most of the checks are done on paper at the time of renewal of yearly tokens. In a number of cases the accidents have occurred due to failure of brakes or steering mechanism. Not only are these vehicles a direct hazard for human life but are also indirectly the greatest sources of pollution. The Supreme Court of India saved Delhi by taking all the old diesel buses off the road. Why can’t we have a similar arrangement here by having all the vehicles more than 15 years old taken off the road? The regional authorities clearing these vehicles are the epitomes of corruption. One can get a certificate even without showing the vehicle to the concerned people. It may even be delivered at one’s home! There is no hold on the issue of route permits. No one is bothered about the carrying capacity of our roads. Most of the new public transport vehicles are issued permits for operation in the cities of Srinagar and Jammu. Condemned vehicles are plied on rural routes.

Added to this menace of unfit vehicles are the untrained and quite often inebriated drivers. Over speeding and reckless driving are two important ingredients for these tragic accidents. Driving licences are issued by dozens without any field tests. The drivers have absolutely no knowledge of traffic rules or the basic road etiquette. Not to talk of developed countries, even in our neighbourhood in some Gulf countries the most difficult thing is to get a driving licence. Some people in these countries like Dubai have been undergoing road tests through the local traffic police for years. Just for a minor mistake, they have to repeat the test after six months. Here, the licences are sold a dime a dozen!

Unfortunately, both the licensing authority and the enforcing agency complement each other in corrupt practices. The traffic police which are supposed to enforce all these basic requirements for safe driving are a disgrace on the Police itself. There is no other organisation in the entire state as corrupt as the traffic police. It would be better for the government to outsource the enforcement of traffic regulations to some private agency. They may earn sizeable revenue.

Finally, the Public Transport operated by the government itself is a classic example of a black-hole. Hundreds of crores invested in it vanish like the “matter” going into an astronomical black-hole. For 600 or so vehicles there are 11,000 employees and over a thousand of these are untraceable. Had we a reasonably efficient and clean Public Transport system in the state sector, the private players could be disciplined. Unfortunately, they are the worst of the lot. Always in the red! Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, let the government divert all its resources and personnel presently employed in chasing just a few hundred odd militants towards the improvement of roads and the enforcement of basic road norms. After all these roads are killing more people than the militants do.

It has been observed that the security forces are better able to monitor, control, and enforce movement of all vehicles as and when they require doing so for their own benefit. Will the young and dynamic Chief Minister, presently on the move, ponder about this and try to end this “Road Rage” in the state? It will save many innocent lives.

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