At any point of time during winters, Kashmiris form a major travelling population in this part of the world; some for tourism, some for health and mostly to avoid the harsh winter. But when the highway stops functioning, it is a crisis. Umar Mukhtar meets some of the travellers who were stranded at Jammu in the immediate past
Abid Hussain Peerzada and Mohammad Moeed are two scholars pursuing PhD at the Central University of Rajasthan. On February 6, morning, they boarded a Volvo bus and left for home to attend a function. In six hours, they reached Jammu.
In Jammu, they first went to the bus stand. It was crowded by Kashmiris, some in cabs and some sitting on the pavements. Without talking to anyone, they straightway went to a nearby restaurant for lunch.
As they entered the restaurant, it was jam-packed with the people having no place to sit. They finally got a place and had their meals. Post- meals, the duo tried to locate a cab for Srinagar. But they could not get it as the highway to Srinagar was closed during the intervening night of February 5 and 6, owing to landslides.
The highway to Jammu, the only major arterial connectivity of Kashmir with the rest of the world, remains routinely closed intermittently, every winter and during Mansoon. The inclement weather triggers massive land sliding. “It is pathetic that authorities could not make this stretch all weather motorable from the past 70 years,” regrets Moeed.
It was after decades that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) took over the run-down and hugely over-used highway, to lay a new alternative road. It took its own time but left the most crucial patch between Ramban and Banihal unattended. Insiders in the government said there were not many takers for the tender because the treacherous track is geologically more challenging than all other sections.
The scholar duo started searching for a hotel, where they could at least ease themselves and put their heavy luggage down. They could not find any hotels around the bus stand. All of them were already booked. They had to move to the Jewel Market where they managed a shelter for Rs 1200, a night. “Whenever we used to stay at Jammu, we used to get such room at Rs 800,” said Abid.
Next morning, they checked out and reached the bus stand. “It was mess there,” Moeed said. “It was the same crowd.” Somehow they boarded a cab but found it part of a long line that was waiting for a go-ahead from the authorities. “We stayed almost for four hours in the cab but the cab did not move an inch from its place,” said Abid.
The cab driver and the passengers exchanged their contact numbers and all of them de-boarded to have tea. Till 3 pm, they were there, waiting to get a nod to move. Finally, when there was no positive response, they had to go back to their destinations.
By the time they reached the same hotel, their room had gone expensive by Rs 100. Knowing the gravity of the situation they did not argue. “We then followed the news on the social media and were continuously browsing the newspapers to get updates but it was disappointing from all the sides.”
They followed the same routine. “Every morning we moved out with a hope that the highway might be through and authorities will do something for us,” Abid said, “But returned broken.”
With every passing day, the meals were getting costlier. Soon, they ran out of the money, and hence had to call their parents to get money arranged.
With highway closed, the number of the stranded passengers at Jammu was swelled up. There were thousands of passengers stuck there: children, women, students and patients, waiting to get to their homes.
“I have seen patients sleeping on the pavements near the bus stand even some of the women sold off their gold jewellery to survive,” said Abid.
Ghulam Nabi Dar, 55 experienced the same crisis. He was on his way home from West Bengal when he found highway closed on February 8. Unlike Moeed and Abid, he could not find any hotel room on affordable costs. Dar decided to go to the bus stand. Once he reached there, he found it already packed. “I saw people lying on the floor of the bus stand in cold, waiting for the opening of the road.”
Dar wanted to talk to his family but his battery was exhausted. He went to a nearby restaurant, where he had his lunch before, to recharge his phone. “I requested the manager if I could recharge my phone here. He took my phone and pasted a slip on its back and gave another slip to me. He asked me for Rs 20 rupees, an hour,” Dar said. He paid. After three days of painful halt, he finally drove home. He would spend his nights with two others on the pavement under one blanket, he said.
In the three days, there were rumours that government is registering stranded passengers for airlift. People who went to designated spots returned without a ticket. “It was all mess,” said Dar.
Frustrated, the stranded passengers protested to register their anger.
The events took a more ugly turn when the angry stranded passengers were pelted upon by some youth accusing them of raising anti-national slogans. Almost six stranded passengers were hospitalised after receiving injuries.
“There were basically rumours that in the Jammu Science College, authorities are registering passengers for an airlift,” Abid said. “When we went there, we were not even allowed to enter the college premises. We raised the anti-administration slogans.”
There were protests by Jammu students and other groups demanding ‘no airlift’. Some even were demanding to drive Kashmiri’s back.
Abid alleged that sections in the city media played a negative role and thus added to the crisis. Instead of showing the plight of the stranded passengers, they empathised on the protest part. “Atmosphere was made such that we even could not go to the hotel rooms,” Abid said. “We then decided to sleep in the bus stand with other fellow stranded passengers. I heard that there were even FIRs registered against the stranded passengers.” The tensions doused after the road was opened and the crowds thinned.
When the governor Satya Pal Malik suo moto talked about the ticket costs on Srinagar Jammu sector being as more than what flying to Dubai would cost, he was talking only about one part of the mess that the weather created.
Tariffs in Jammu hotels had gone much higher during the crisis, stranded passengers alleged. A few sections in the society understood the crisis well.
On February 11, Jammu’s Sikhs community came forward and started the relief operations. They opened the doors of their gurdwaras for the stranded passengers. Various political parties only followed the suit later. The delayed response by the political parties was seen as a stunt as they remained busy in issuing press notes for most of the days.
With no rail connectivity at all and land connectivity highly fragile, air travel was the only alternative. But the rates had already been skyrocketed by the airliners.
The Jammu Srinagar air travel is half an hour distance. On normal days the ticket for the same sector costs slightly around Rs 2000. But the same ticket was sold at Rs 25000. “There is no cap or no regulation for this,” said Abid.
The airport at Srinagar was also in disarray. “Even the Srinagar airport cannot handle five inches of snow,” wrote one person on Twitter.
But the airport authorities contradict to these claims. “When we received the bad weather update our whole team took it as a challenge and were ready to deliver,” Akash Mathur, the director at the Srinagar airport said. “We cleared snow at 3 am when the temperature was minus 8.” said.
There is a total of seven airliners (Air India, Jet, Spice Jet, Indigo, Air Asia, Vistara, Go Air) operating from Srinagar airport flying passengers to 10 different destinations.
On February 9, the Srinagar airport had operated a recorded of 82 flight in one day, excluding helicopters and chartered flights. Around 15000 people were catered on that very day. “Even there were additional flights operated to cater this crisis.”
Mathur said what the people do not understand is that flight schedules do not get cancelled by the five inches of the snow. The route weather is a major issue, he said.
“The hike in the prices in such situations is a pan-world phenomenon. It is not like the airliners are cheating Kashmiris but it all depends on pre-installed ‘software’ which decide rates,” an official of an airline said. “It is basically a ‘bucketing system. Nothing can be done to the rates, the only thing we can do in such situations is that we can fly additional flights subjected to good visibility and weather,” he added.
Finally, Kashmir based air ticketing agent’s forum extended their helping hand to the stranded passengers at Jammu. “We have decided to offer tickets at a flat rate of 2500-3500 as against the online fares of Rs 10,000-20,000 for Jammu to Srinagar sector only,” said Owais Ahmad, vice president of the forum. “We received a call from a boy from Pulwama whose mother died and he was stuck at Jammu, and that changed everything for us.”