“I am part of a free country but many Kashmiris don’t share this feeling of freedom”

Naeem Akhter in his new avatar as state’s works minister details the crisis, the challenges and his idea of correction in the ‘developmental narrative” that the government is keen to implement without politics

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Kashmir knows PWD as patch works department for a very long time. Is its status still the same?

NAEEM AKHTER (NA): PWD has changed at many levels. It will continue to strive to become a modern machine of change and we hope to achieve that.

KL: How will this wonder happen?

NA: PWD is one of the few departments where you have established mechanisms and systems. Many things have happened in Kashmir’s history that prevented our systems to develop. When larger crimes hit the place, these systems tend to crumble that is what is happening. But we have gone back to the drawing board and started reforms afresh to start building roads and buildings of quality and remove the impression that road are always under construction only.

KL: Why is Srinagar impassable?

NA: Srinagar is a haphazardly developed city and that will have its own problems. But it is not impassable. In the last three weeks, you had no jams but nobody took a note because of the cynicism that has gone into our thinking. Jams were so common everywhere but we have streamlined this. Nobody even took a note of it because there is a kind of negativity.

We have not given any extra mile of road to Srinagar but there were interventions in the management system. Infrastructure is now coming up but even in absence of that just a management intervention has resulted in a big relief.

KL: When will be the work on flyover over?

NA: Flyover will be available for the transport by early January, the first phase of it. But the stretch from A S College to Barzulla will be thrown open to traffic in September.

KL: Are labour issues behind the delay?

NA: There are certain acute problems which were not there last year at the peak of construction activity. We had 850 skilled people working on it but then after the 2016 unrest the image of and reputation of Kashmir took such a huge beating that even labourers are not coming when we are seeking the tourists to come. So in spite of our best efforts we were able to attract not more than 500 so far.

I will give you another example. There is a major bridge at Qazigund coming up on the new highway. It was to be completed last year but in July when the unrest struck they had raised some piers but they fled without completing it. Those piers are now to be demolished and reconstructed afresh. Now they have made fresh contracts to new agencies to get labour. When they were about to get them, Mirbazar encounter took place where the militants killed 3 labourers, all working for this contractor. One of them was a non-local. So again they went into panic, still unable to get workers. Kashmir is otherwise short in skilled workforce.

Because of this very reason, some major projects like the highway have suffered time and cost overruns.

KL: Is labour the only issue?

NA: It is not the only issue in case of national highway. There have been issues other than this but they have been sorted out now. The land acquisition took unusually long time; there were issues of fund embezzlement as well.

KL: Was it because a PDP lawmaker was an obstruction?

NA: There were so many court cases, reports of embezzlements and vigilance cases. This thing that you are referring to was resolved in no time. That was about last mile connectivity. Srinagar-South part will be ready by September.

KL: On the highway to Jammu, the most crucial stretch between Banihal and Ramban is still not being tackled even as most of it is coming up?

NA: We have the country’s foremost company that earlier executed Mughal Road and many other projects in J&K, working on this part. It is a very challenging task because it passes through the most unstable mountain systems in the Himalayas. Then the vibration caused by the traffic and machinery has its own impact. I keep my fingers crossed but I am sure Nashri was equally unstable but we have done that.

KL: Since nothing much is happening on political front so your entire focus seems to be the developmental narrative. With all these problems in hand, how will you develop Kashmir?

NA: We have to develop in spite of these problems. These problems I didn’t invent or created but the system inherited all this. But in spite of these inherent problems, Kashmir is developing, albeit at a snail’s pace. But the problems have risen. These problems raised out of the facts which were not developmental in nature. Besides, there are attitude issues, the work ethics and the work culture that have added to our problems. We construct roads but their maintenance has been a problem.

We are moving slowly. I think Kashmir is first time in the history going to open up. Firstly, railway link between Chennani to Jammu to Srinagar is becoming a reality. Secondly, the mountains that have always kept us closed politically, economically, socially and psychology are getting holes in them and not at just one point but at least at three points. You are going to have a tunnel on Mughal Road, and in Banihal which is going to be ready next year. Then, you are going to have a tunnel connecting Kashmir with Chenab valley and another tunnel between Chenab Valley and Jammu at Sudh Mahadev. This tunnel has a specific need and it will come up on the alternate highway that will come from Kathua and will come to Kishtiwar and then to Kashmir via Sinthan Top. This is not a pipe dream because sanctions have been issued, DPRs stand framed.

Then, there will be Sonamarg tunnel on the Ladakh road which will give you further depth. On this main tunnel NIHDCL is focusing to work on soon. They are confident they will fix the tender in August.

In interior Kashmir, we are getting another highway which will take off from Gallander, move to Shopian and then connect with the highway at Qazigund. I have already given timelines to the officials for land acquisition. This 90 kms highway state is laying and it must come up in three years. Besides, the ring road around Srinagar and third highway between Kargil and Zanskar, also a state road, will be constructed by PWD. The Jammu Poonch road is being four-laned.

Once they come up, these projects will drastically change the scenario of Kashmir.

KL: Will these projects impact the siege mentality of Kashmir, positively or negatively?

NA: I have been saying this repeatedly that Kashmir has a feeling of siege because of historical reasons. We were connected with the outside world to Northern and Western world. Then we had no borders. Your soft influences, culture and traditions, industry, language – almost everything came from there. You had a flourishing trade that gave Kashmir very peculiar identity. You cannot take that away from the psyche of Kashmir and that has to be addressed today or tomorrow. What is happening internally can not discount the importance of what is happening externally. Right now, people are trying to connect Africa with China with Pakistan with Indian Ocean. This part of the world cannot remain immune to this.

KL: How can you manage Kashmir by keeping it internally connected but ensuring it is insulated from outside?

NA: That is core philosophy of our party: we can’t stay away from that, we can’t change borders but we have to mingle with this. Fortunately the LoC trade has survived in spite of all that has happened. That gives you an inkling of the thinking that whatever has been achieved so far is worth the result. That gives us a confidence that we can build up on that. Law and order can have ups and downs but it is my belief that I am part of India. I have been a part of free country but many Kashmiris don’t share this feeling of freedom. That is our challenge. They don’t feel free that is our challenge, that we have to adjust. The only known method of doing that is winning the hearts and minds. That is the real battle, not a gunfight with the militant.

KL: PHE apart, development has multiple appendages. You have ERA, a multi-lateral funded organisation that lacks a future once funds dry up. Then you have  JKPCC that is too slow. Is there is a possibility of creating a new organisation for fast implementation of projects?

NA: JKPCC is under-exploited. Implementing Rs 400 Cr projects is peanuts. Even individuals do more than this in a year, even in Srinagar. I have pointed it out in my first meeting by seeking a core plan of Rs 4000 crore which suits its profile, available resource and manpower. They have to brace up, face competition and we will support.

KL: Has there been any intervention?

NA: I am encouraging them away from spoon feeding. They are no more the King’s agency. They must compete. Now they are participating in tenders even internally. They cannot give works to people of choice.

KL: You lack institutional set up; projects suffer time and cost overruns. Now central builders are entering Kashmir. Why cannot you set up some system in PPP mode?

NA: I have asked them to work on Joint Ventures. I have told them while we are building a small highway; it is an opportunity to compete with central agencies. So if we come up better, we will have better credentials and the image problem of our department, engineers and the administration can suddenly change. Otherwise we run the risk of having all the big projects done by others and we would have to blame ourselves.

KL: Why is the technical bureaucracy not respectful of the local talent and capacity to implement projects? It was a small contractor from South Kashmir who completed India’s longest tunnel when the ILFS main contractor fled.

NA: We are taking note of that. We still do not have the Standard Bidding Document (SBD) in J&K that would list procedures and processes.  In its absence, engineers use their own parameters for declaring somebody as non-serious or disqualified. We have changed and we are making SBD. We have made some major departures to take note of this entrepreneurship angle.

If you are spending 100K corers in J&K, you should be able to create 1000 entrepreneurs, who can ultimately go outside and work for major projects. That handholding has to be there.

I am keen on relating public spending on development this to the development of skill labour, human resource and entrepreneurship. For this we have relaxed many rules in our SBD without compromising the transparency part of it. Now, anybody having a card and with no previous experience can bid for a work of Rs 2 crore. If you have a card, go for hiring machinery if you cannot own it. We have also reduced the criteria from five to three years.

If anyone has implemented Rs 1 Cr project within the given formulae, we will enable that contractor to bid for more a project worth Rs 2.5 Cr. Besides, we have provided for joint ventures for mega projects up to Rs 20 Cr. We want group of engineers to join and take these projects after giving us their bank documents.

KL: Do you feel the requirement of reviving that Special Projects Organisation?

NA: We still have two full-fledged divisions in Kashmir, the Project Construction Division and Truck Terminals division. They have no work. Truck division was set up when Fruit Mundi was set up. For 30 years, they have nothing to do. I am not closing them but relocating them and giving them work.

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