As the people have started enjoying the ‘long drive’ on Kashmir’s first motorway, the alternative highway, saving time and fuel, thousands of businesses are collapsing in the town which the road bypasses. Even the shrines are seeking spaces to reinvent the structures and fight back the loss, reports Shams Irfan
In 2011, when National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), started construction of a four-lane road connecting Qazigund with Lasjan in Srinagar outskirts, bypassing major towns like Bijbehara, Awantipora and Pampore, nobody could foresee the change it was about to trigger.
Not even the people whose livelihood this new highway was about to snatch. One such person was Manzoor Ahmad Sofi, 38, who owns Shabnum Hotel, a small highway eatery catering to tourists and long-route truckers.
All these years, since 2011, while the construction was underway for the highway, Sofi was sure his small business will survive the change. But like other two hundred odd shopkeepers in Awantipora, he too was wrong. “I used to earn between Rs 5000 and Rs 8000 daily,” said Sofi. “Now if I make Rs 1000, I consider it my lucky day.”
Four months after the new highway was thrown open for vehicular movement in December 2017, despite a small part of it still under-construction, Sofi could clearly see what is in store for the market he operates from.
“Last Sunday I just sold a single meal. In pre-highway days it never used to be less than 80 meals a day,” recalls Sofi nostalgically. “During tourist season I would even sell 200 meals a day. But now I sit idle all day waiting for customers, who never show-up.”
After running a successful business for over two decades, all of a sudden Sofi is faced with a survival crisis. “I have a family of six members to feed including my two unmarried sisters,” said Sofi. “How will I manage now?”
Located between a mountain and a river, historic Awantipora town, which has a population of over six-thousand, now wears a deserted look during the daytime.
The idea of loss to town’s economy by new highway can be gauged by the silence outside once buzzing Syed Hassan Mantaqi shrine, located on the town’s northern edge.
As part of belief, almost every traveller, irrespective of the faith, used to stop at Mantaqi shrine and make donations, hoping it will make their journey safe.
“Our daily collection was somewhere between Rs 45000 to Rs 60000,” said Mohammad Azeem Bugow, 48, General Supervisor and Accounts officer of the shrine since 2003. “Now it is just between Rs 4000 and Rs 5000.”
Employing 21 people including gardeners and Imams, Mantaqi shrine has never witnessed empty donation boxes before. “It was shocking for us when we opened our donation boxes after the new-highway became functional,” said Bugow. “There were just a few thousand rupees in it.”
Bugow recalls that even during three months of harsh winters when Srinagar-Jammu highway used to remain closed mostly, the shrine managed to collect Rs 15000 on daily basis. “April onwards, because of tourists and then yatra, we used to collect donations with both hands, literally,” recalls Bugow.
As a tradition, during apple season, trucks loaded with fruit leaving Sopore and other mandis used to donate a portion of their fare towards the shrine, to safeguard their journey against any untoward incident. “It was kind of spiritual travel insurance,” said Bugow.
But now these trucks take new highway, bypassing the Mantaqi shrine and Awantipora town altogether.
To fix the issue of falling revenues the Shrine’s management has come up with a “noble plan”. “We have already set up a mobile collection unit on the new highway,” said Bugow. “But collections there never crossed Rs 500 a day mark so far.”
Also, the shrine management has purchased 2 kanals and 12 marlas of land adjacent to the new highway.
“We have already sought permission from the government to construct a replica of the shrine there,” said Bugow. “It will have restrooms for truckers.”
The purchase of the land was facilitated by the local district commissioner Pulwama, as Auqaf, a body entrusted to look after shrines in Kashmir, is headed by the Chief Minister.
But Mantaqi shrine is not the only religious place affected by the change, Awantipora’s famous Gurudwara is equally deserted. Till a few months back, at this time of the year, Gurudwara used to be packed with visitors, mostly tourists and Punjab based truck-drivers, who would stop for tea and snacks, or simply to pay their obeisance.
“On their way out they used to make donations which helped us keep the langar (community kitchen) running,” said Gurmeet Singh, 51, Secretary Publicity, Gurudwara Prabandak Committee (GPC), Awantipora. “Now hardly anybody passes through this town.”
On daily basis, Gurudwara had a collection of around Rs 2000, which helped it run its kitchen and maintain its guest house. “We charge a nominal Rs 10 per night from visitors who stay here for the night,” said Singh. “Now our daily collection has gone down to Rs 200 a day.”
To overcome the crisis, Gurudwara too has purchased fifteen marlas of land on the new highway for construction of a langar (community kitchen), restrooms, and a small prayer hall. “But we are not permitted to raise a structure so far,” said Dr Ravi Singh, president GPC. However, Dr Singh is hopeful that the government will soon grant them permission, as was done in Mantaqi shrine’s case. The next highway town that got bypassed completely is Bijbehara. Known to be one of the oldest marketplaces in Kashmir, over the decades Bijbehara lost its centrality but somehow retained business, thanks to the highway that passed through the town till December 2017.
Umer Javid Ganie, 24, is a third generation butcher, whose shop at Goriwan was a must stop place for government employees, businessmen, and truckers who used to pass through this town. “One an average I used to sell eight sheep a day,” said Umer. “But now it is down to just three, that too if luck is on my side.”
During fruits season, when thousands of trucks laden with apple, pears and cheery used to make their way out of the valley, they would stop at Umer’s shop to buy mutton. “I used to sell two sheep in the evening to these truckers only,” said Umer. “Now rarely any truck passes through Bijbehara.”
Ali Mohammad Ganie, 65, who has a mutton shop adjacent to Umer’s has an almost same story to share. “I have never seen such a slump in sales in last four decades,” said Ganie.
However, despite sixty per cent slump in business, Ganie is more worried about a proposed Srinagar-Pahalgam highway that will bypass Bijbehara completely. “This means whatever business we are left with will be gone now,” said Ganie.
Same concern gives Mohammad Amin Shah, 45, who owns Tuba Restaurant in Bijbehara, sleepless nights. “Our main clientele is tourists who visit Kokernag, Achabal and Pahalgam from Srinagar,” said Shah, who started his restaurant in 2004. “But if this new Pahalgam road is constructed, we will lose our business completely.”
During peak tourist season Shah’s restaurant used to stay open till 1 am. Now it closes at 8 pm.
Shah’s restaurant was also a stopover for local truckers who carry construction material, especially cement from Srinagar to entire south Kashmir. “Now they prefer new highway as it saves both fuel and time,” said Shah sadly.
The detour of these truckers has equally dented Awantipora’s famous tea-maker Mohammad Akram Pinchoo.
Pinchoo, 67, used to earn around Rs 5000 a day, thanks to the local’s truckers who used to ferry cement from Khunmoh to parts of south Kashmir. “My business is sixty per cent down,” said Pinchoo sadly.
However, Pinchoo is hopeful that once the existing road is widened, as proposed a few years back by late Mufti Sayeed, Awantipora will once again retain its centrality.
But with each day, as the footfall of customers falls steadily, Pinchoo’s hopes fade. “I am grateful to my permanent customers, who still come here for tea, despite having a better and convenient road now,” said Pinchoo. “Else I would be forced to shut my shop.”
Another reason people visit Pinchoo’s tea stall is that of his ability to translate revenue documents, written in chaste Urdu. “I am a regular reader of Urdu newspapers since 1965. People often come to me with a request to help them understand what is written in these documents. This helps generate business as well, but it is not that big,” said Pinchoo.
Constructed at a huge cost, the 66 km long four-lane road, which was initially slated to be functional by June 2014, stands almost complete.
One of the fully functional portions includes 9 km stretch between Lasjan and Galandhar, which bypasses Pampore town completely. Since its opening, the shift of traffic rush to the new highway has turned the once buzzing Saffron town into a sleepy hamlet. “Just stand near DPS Athwajan for an hour and see how many vehicles take a right turn towards the new highway, and how many take Pampore route?” said Aabid, a social activist from Pampore. “There are not many vehicles coming into this town now.”
And why would they, asks Aabid. Since 2011 there has been no major repair work on the old Islamabad-Srinagar highway. “It has been left unattended once the work on new highway started. There is not even a hundred meter stretch without potholes.”
Since last few years, Aabid has approached local authorities with the request to at least patch the pot-holes, but nothing has happened. “There is a huge hump in the middle of the road near Pampore Exchange since 2014, which took two lives after an accident took place there. But still nobody ever came to remove it,” said Aabid. “This road is no longer anybody’s priority as VVIP’s now take the better road.”
Official neglect apart, the new highway has forced small businesses in Pampore town to shut their shops.
In 2016, when the arrival of tourists broke one million marks after a long lull, Shahid, who owned a grocery shop in Pampore, switched to selling dry-fruits and Kashmir handicrafts. Given the number of tourists vehicles passing through Pampore, within no time Shahid’s earnings tripled. “I could now send my kids to a good school, and save for my family’s future as well,” said Shahid.
But his run with luck was short lived as the noise of heavy machines working 24×7, barely two miles away, started giving Shahid sleepless nights. “I knew once the new highway will be functional my business will get affected, but I had no idea it will be completely over for me,” said Shahid.
With tourist vehicles bypassing Pampore now, Shahid and many other dry-fruit shop owners are looking for alternatives in and around the new highway. “But so far there is no permission for construction along new highway,” said Shahid.
Equally affected is Pampore’s late-night market near Leterbal, where trucks usually stop for fuel, food, dry-fruits, and minor repairs. “I used to keep my shop open till 2 am during summers,” said Mudassir Farooq, 27, owner of Prince General Store, one of the multi-utility shops in the area.
Farooq’s shop sells everything from vegetables to dry-fruits that truck-drivers carry with them on their way back to their home states. “This market place has evolved over the years into a cluster catering especially to truckers,” said Farooq. “We have everything here that they need. This place would stay open till 2 am or beyond. But now things have changed.”
Like Sharma Dhaba, a favourite stop for truckers, Farooq too closes his shop at 10 pm. “Given our clientele, our business hours usually start after sunset,” said Farooq. “But now the business is only half of what it used to be earlier.” Some of the affected traders hope that once the toll-posts will emerge and start seeking “the cut” from savings on petrol ad time, on the highway, part of the commercial transport will come back on the old track.
Second stop for truckers after making purchases at Leterbal used to be Ghulam Mohiddin Trumboo’s general store in Awantipora. “I am running this shop for last 27 years and there was no leisure time,” said Trumboo. “But now I am completely free.”
In order to give an idea of his pre-highway earnings, Trumboo raised his hand in the air, flashing all five fingers, and said, “I used to sell cigarettes worth Rs 5000 in the evening only. Now I don’t earn that much in an entire day.”
With new highway barely a few months old, but its effect has already forced a number of small business owner to re-think about their future and livelihood. “This highway has not bypassed only towns, but our lives too,” said Pinchoo thoughtfully.