Living On The Edge

Accessibility is the first casualty when it snows. But this is just one of the vulnerabilities with which about seven million people have survived so far. Tasavur Mushtaq identifies major vulnerabilities of Kashmir society which could be taken care of with foresight and policy intervention.


The weakest link that New Delhi has with Kashmir, many people in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk would tell the visiting scribes, is the road itself. “We are a gated population,” a politically active resident Abdullah M said. “We have the road to the outside world leading through two nostrils, one of which is always flowing.” Passing through the unstable zones of young Shivalik and Pirpanchal ranges, NH-1A stands on old alignment and is ailing.

It was in 1912 when Dogra autocrat extended the road to Srinagar. Till 1922 it remained his personal route. In the post-partition days, state PWD department would take care of it till 1964 following which BRO took it over, widened it and brought to double lane specifications. Prior to that, a German firm Baresel & Kunz had completed the 2.5 Kms Jawahar Tunnel in August 1960 that by-passed the perilous Banihal Pass and reduced the distance significantly.

But the highway that was designed for not more than 300 vehicles with an axle load of 10 tons is being used by over 4000 vehicles, mostly trucks – with over 20-ton axle load, daily. Pressure on the road is increasing by 10 per cent every year.

Almost a century of constant use has severely impacted the road, the only access Kashmir has with the plains. It has 29 major and 19 minor landslide areas. Geologist Dr G M Bhat, who is working on a project, once, noted: “The road is not feasible as almost sixty per cent of it is faulty”. He has identified at least six faulty stretches. One of these stretches the ‘Murree Thrust’ is gradually sinking.

In winter the highway receives heavy snowfalls, while for three months from March rains lash it. Its 39-km stretch from Ramban to Banihal falls under seismic zone-IV. Almost everywhere there is massive soil erosion. Even a drizzle closes it down. In January 1995, avalanches and snowstorm killed 69 passengers as one of the two tubes of the tunnel was closed and a convoy blocked one lane. BRO spends an estimated Rs 50 crore a year on its maintenance.

A road with questionable reliability is considered to be a major factor in Kashmir’s sub-average social economic development. “This is a road that is splattered with blood,” said a police officer who during his policing career has served on the highway. “Almost every curve and every nook has had people dead – some while laying the road, some while maintaining and mostly while travelling.” This is something that people in policy making and governance have acknowledged throughout.

It was the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government that wanted to address this grey area of the integration process by including upgrading the existing infrastructure. Apparently owing to the limitation of resources, the NDA government took a decision of taking up a small patch on the Srinagar bypass besides the Lakhanapur-Jammu stretch leaving the main highway to the second stage of the Golden Quadrilateral project. Of the 400 Kms between Lakhanpur and Srinagar, work is nearing completion on 114 Kms between Lakhanpur and Jammu and 17 kilometres Srinagar bypass with a cumulative investment of more than Rs 952 crores.

Efforts of implementing the rest of it started in 2010. The new Rs 10600 crore stands sliced in six sub-projects that the National Highway Authority of India is implementing under Build Own Transfer (BOT) set up. These projects include Rs 1100 crore 67.76 km Srinagar-Qazigund, Rs 1987 crore 15.25 km Qazigund-Banihal sub-project involving construction of two tunnels of 8.45 km and 0.69 km, Rs 986 crore Ramsu-Ramban 36 km stretch, Rs 971 crore 43 km Ramban-Nashri and Chenani-Udhampur projects, Rs 2519 crore 12 km Chenani Nashri stretch involving construction of main tunnel and escape tunnel of 9 km each and Rs 1939 crore 65 km Udhampur-Jammu stretch.

Most of these projects, according to NHAI sources have been put to tenders. IL&FS Transportation Networks has bagged the Rs 2519 crore involving the Chenani-Nashri project that has a 9-km two-lane tunnel with an escape tunnel and four laning of 12 km. The construction major has already set up SPV Chenani-Nashri Tunnelway to set up the project within 1825 days. It will receive a semi-annual annuity of Rs 317.52 crore for the project.

Jammu-Udhampur stretch has gone to Shaboorji & Palonji Co Ltd and Qazigund-Banihal sub-project that involves two tunnels was bagged by Mavyuga Engineering Co Ltd, NHAI sources said.

In July last, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Dr CP Joshi and chief minister Omar Abdullah laid the foundation stone of 8.45 km long tunnel between Qazigund and Banihal at Wazur hamlet. Along with 690 meters of another small tunnel, the project costing Rs 1987 crore is tentatively slated for 2016. Another tunnel would connect Chenani and Nashri involving an expenditure of Rs 2519 crore will be a two lane two-way tube.

Regardless of when the new highway is ready, the larger point is that it is also being built on almost the same alignment on which the existing highway rests.

It is also an issue how we manage the highway especially when it is winter and snowing. The last week’s goof-up is interesting. After the national highway authority of India started working on creating an alternative highway and allotted major works to various agencies, the Border Roads Organization made it clear that they may not be able to maintain the highway when another organization is improving it. But NHAI declined to take it over. After being pursued, NHAI finally agreed to take over 100 km.

In 2011, NHAI took over 59 Km from Jammu to Udhampur and later 40 Km from Chinani to Batote. This area that includes part of the most disturbed stretch is technical with NHAI. So when there was snowfall, BRO was not working. When they were asked, they sought formal requests from central as well as the state government. By then hundreds of vehicles were stranded and nobody knew the impending crisis!

But the road is just one crisis that the people face when nature intervenes adversely especially during winter. There are certain issues that are linked to road and there are many others which do not follow the only surface connectivity of Kashmir with the rest of the world. There are issues of mindset and perhaps issues of ignorance about the requirements of a society that wants its fair share in the twenty-first century.

In July 2010, Finland created history by making access to 1Mbps internet bandwidth a ‘legal right’ and within three years it will be 100Mbps. The Internet is mankind’s new jugular vein. Most of the governments’ across the globe are working to link all its citizens by broadband. But the same sounds utopian in Kashmir that has two million more people than Finland.

Internet was introduced in Kashmir by the DoT on behalf of VSNL in 1999. As the dial-up users jumped to 2000 within days, the security set up took umbrage under Operation Prakram to roll back the service along with the STD facilities to Kashmir. Operation Prakram was the biggest peacetime troop built up along Pakistan border, which came in the aftermath of the attack on Indian parliament. India and Pakistan did not go to war but it took a long time for the service to resume.

In January 2001, a Software Technology Park (STP) was inaugurated amid peaked security concerns that envisaged an earth station supposed to offer a gateway to the few software developers and internet service providers (ISPs) in the city.  Market forgot the STPI’s failure to grow as the cell phone introduction coincided with the liberal availability of the bandwidth. “Then, STPI was our main bandwidth supplier and now STPI purchases bandwidth from us,” said Javed Ahmad, one of the promoters of the CNS Internet, the only local private ISP in the market. “It refused to grow.”

Security apprehensions notwithstanding, the use of internet grew phenomenally. People using below 256 Kbps bandwidth are more than two million but the number of broadband users (above 256 Kbps), experts say are more than 100 thousand. Broadband users were at 46650 in October 2008 and J&K changed a lot since then.

But what is important is that J&K, like other places, is totally dependent on bandwidth. From a student in the University or an official in the civil secretariat to a cashier manning a bank’s desk in north Kashmir, nobody can work without internet. Even dispensing cash from ATMS is linked to the connectivity. Internet in Kashmir has moved away from the microwave days. It needs adequate OFC and alternatives with sound fall back systems.

The market is serviced by many players – BSNL, Bharti Airtel, Tata Teleservices, Reliance and Dishnet Wireless. But it seems the emphasis is more on minting money and less on offering adequate alternatives. This year’s snowfall exposed the fragility of the systems that are in place.

Every service provider selling internet in Kashmir needs to have a fiber optic cable (OFC) to get bandwidth from the plains. BSNL has one so has Bharti Airtel and the Army. All others either lack it or have their projects incomplete. Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) owns an OFC that uses the towers of its 400-kV double circuit Kishanpur-Wagoora transmission line and it is a major one because it links most of the banking industry (that purchases bandwidth through Tulip – a non-local service provider). This is in addition to radio links and the microwave systems that the providers might be using.

Since all these lines run through the same area, these are prone to crisis. And that exactly happened last week. BSNL line was damaged by a landslide in Chenani. The Bharti Airtel line was also snapped. The PGCIL line was disrupted in Pogal Paristan belt. Entire Kashmir was paralyzed – from governance to banking and from media to academics. The PGCIL line was a major one because it linked many banks in Kashmir with outside, even their ATMs. BSNL was using this line as an alternative to its own so it paralyzed completely relying on its archaic microwave that cannot even support two per cent of the broadband load that the service providers usually has.

Bharti Airtel and TATA Teleservices rushed in time, used a band-aid and saved its face in Kashmir. BSNL was seeking permission for its vehicles in Qazigund to reach the spot in Chenaini after 72 hours had gone by. PGCIL flew its experts in the state government arranged IAF choppers, repaired the power line but did not touch the optic fiber! They did the repairs next day.

Service providers cannot act like hoards of cattle and take the same route. There has to have a ring that can create an alternative to linear systems in place. Nobody had even given it a thought because nobody in the state seems to be interested in monitoring it, not even those in governance carrying iPads and breaking news on twitter. A senior officer in the BSNL said they are working on an alternative.

“We have a ring coming from Mughal Road and it has already reached Pir Ki Gali,” the officer said, “This summer it will be linked to Srinagar.”

But BSNL is being accused of being lackadaisical in not creating a dependable backbone. In 2005 it partnered with the Army to create Mercury Streak – the 474-Kms Srinagar-Thiksy (Leh) OFC network within 16 months at a cost of Rs 13.68 crore (BSNL says equipments worth Rs 28 crore is excluded) and it has zero compliant despite passing through much difficult terrain. It connected Ladakh through an alternative via Manali but forgot Kashmir?

The positive development on the front is that the power department is keen to use either of its two transmission lines or both to get an OFC to Kashmir. “We are in the process of negotiating the idea with the Power Line Carrier Communication (PLCC) and we believe it would cost Rs 60 crores,” a senior officer said. “We have many clients in tow and we can sell part of the bandwidth and consume part of it to link our entire operations across the state.” Please start implementing the project, Mr Power Minister. It is money and future.


J&K is a net energy deficit state and Kashmir is more of a crisis ridden because Jhelum basin lacks capacity to have huge generation units beyond Uri where NHPC has one operational and another upcoming unit. In the state sector, there are small power houses, mostly old and worn out. So the only option is to purchase energy from outside and wheel it into the valley.

Initially Kashmir would try to manage its requirements from the petty generations it had within the confines of the valley. Though local engineers had some experience of transmitting energy, the first major exposure was when the power department set up 132 KV transmission line between Kalakote and Chenani in 1967-68. In Kashmir context, the watershed year was the setting up of the first major transmission line in 1976. The double circuit 132 kv line linked Udhampur with Srinagar. The line used the technology of the time in which the conductor would pass through the gas filled cables. By now the technology is as good as obsolete because the agencies that were repairing it have closed the shop or upgraded the technology.

This double circuit line was bifurcating at Pir Panchal. While one circuit would go atop the mountains, another would pass through the Jawahal Tunnel. Over the years, the creation of sub-stations at Batote, Ramban and Banihal would consume most of the 50-MW energy that this line carried leaving almost nothing to cross over the mountains. Later, one of the circuits became defunct leaving the only one operational with frequent outages.

While it helped the government to import some energy, the soaring demands added to the pressures. Finally the state government started creating another line – 220 kv Kishanpur-Pampore double circuit line that was commissioned in 1996. This is the main pride of the power department.

Meanwhile, PGCIL was born in 1989. Having exclusive mandate to create the grid and transmission infrastructure across India, the company took over the transmission part from the power producers like NHPC. After laying the transmission lines for most of the NHPC projects within the state, obviously excluding Salal that was operational, PGCIL embarked on creating the main energy artery in J&K. Its gigantic 184 Kms long 400 kv, double circuit transmission line was finally commissioned in November 2006 at an investment of Rs 277 crore.

This boosted the capacity of energy transmission from and to valley. While the 220 kv double circuit Pampore Kishanpur line would transmit around 400 MWs, the much older single circuit 132 kv Chenaini-Srinagar could handle only 50 MWs. The system was totally inadequate for the huge winter requirements and overloading would frequently trigger a breakdown plunging entire valley into darkness. The PGCIL’s line added the capacity by another 800 MWs.

The project executed by TATA Power in over three years has 520 towers, some of which pass through the high-altitude 10,000 feet peaks over the Pir Panchal heights that remain snow-clad round the year.

The interesting feature of the line is that it takes off as a double circuit line at Kishanpur up to Thathar (108 Kms), bifurcates into two single circuit lines in the Pir Panchal range between Thathar and Qazigund (11 Kms) and then rejoins and reaches Wagoora (65 Kms) as a double circuit line. This was done to ensure that even if a snag hits one circuit another remains functional.

But nature has remained unpredictable. Last week when Pir Panchal got a sub-average snowfall, both the lines were damaged. Both the lines got snags at two places each. PGCIL had to fly to the spots with highly skilled IAF pilots to get airdropped to repair the snags. Their ‘heroic’ story remained splashed on the newspaper front pages for many days.

Policy makers in Delhi and Srinagar seem to be drawing lessons. The proposed 220 kv transmission line that would connect Leh with Srinagar and integrate the arid region with the Northern Grid may not face the same problem because the line will go underground through tunnels at the most problematic spots.

Though the ownership of the line is yet to be decided and there is no go to the project so far but the details of the project are quite impressive. The proposed 335 km line will have 8.50 kms through tunnels in order to save it from the destructive snow storms and avalanches of Zoji La. It will have four sub stations at Drass, Kargil, Khaltse and Leh and would be able to transmit 60 MW of power in either of the direction. In 2005 it was expected to cost Rs 634 crore. Irked over the delay in implementation of the project, Leh leaders have started putting pressure on the government. They say the NHPC owned two projects – one each in Leh and Kargil, are about to get into generation and part of the generation could be moved out of the cold desert.

Is there a possibility of underground cabling of either of the two major transmission lines that connect Kashmir with the Northern Grid, at most dangerous places which are prone to crisis? Creating another passage through other mountain range – Mughal Road and Simthan Pass – would face the same fate. The other option is to cooperate with Islamabad and have a grid-interface through Uri which is less risky.

Kashmir has changed a lot since the first vehicle rolled into the valley in 1905. Now the horse driven carts are limited to certain pockets. A century later, there has been little addition to roads while number of vehicles has grown exponentially making traffic a chaos at peak times.

But fuel supplies are a problem. Petroleum products are a major business that oil companies – Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Hindustan Petroleum (HP), Bharat Petroleum (BP) – are managing through a vast network. On an average, Kashmir market consumes  a substantial 145 kilo litres (1000 liters is a kiloliter) of petrol and around 345 Kls of diesel a day during winters. LPG has emerged as another major petroleum product that witnesses a massive market appetite during winters. Officials in the PDS suggest the daily requirement of Kashmir market is 18000 cylinders.

All the three companies are in all products including kerosene. IOC has the major market share in petrol and diesel while the HP is the leader in LPG and kerosene.

But all the three players have their tankage capacity quite limited that usually is enough for 40 days. Cumulative petrol tankage facility available with all the three players is 4367 Kls for petrol and 12742 Kls for diesel, besides 18000 Kls for kerosene that is usually distributed through PDS channels only. Last week when the snowfall blocked the highway, a senior functionary in CAPD department responsible for overall distributions said the oil companies have petrol stocks for 11 days, diesel for 23 days and kerosene for 34 days. The LPG stocks were sufficient for seven days only.

“While we are insisting the oil companies to add to their tankage capacities, the real worries are in the LPG front because it involves around eight lakh families,” the officer said. “HP has 775 thousand LPG connections, IOC has 126000 and BP has 63000 registered connections but there is lot of pilferage and misuse because now lot of LPG is consumed for warming or an alternative fuel in cars.” The government, he said, has already taken up the issue with the centre and it is expected that two CNG stations would be set up in the state which would reduce the pressure.

But the oil companies have not invested in bottling. HP runs a 1400-Mts LPG tankage capacity in Pampore with a bottling plant since 2004. Now it is expected to double its capacity. BP has 100 Mts tankage and it ferries its cylinders from Jammu. The IOC lacks any tankage in Kashmir and sources filling of cylinders from Jammu but claims it has a tie-up with HP with stakes over 130 Mts of tankage. This creates a chaos during crisis as grey market takes over.

There are only two options to manage these supplies uninterrupted. One is that the oil companies will have to invest to add to their capacities. Second is to explore the possibilities of laying a pipe to the main depots in Kashmir.  In 2005, J&K government was excited that New Delhi would extend Mathura-Jalandhar gas-pipeline to Udhampur – 240 kms long line that will also have a 58 Kms spur line connecting it with Jammu. It was supposed to have a capacity of two million MTs a year and would cost Rs 400 crore. It never took off.

Later in 2007, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas mooted the idea of laying 453 kms Jalandhar-Jammu-Srinagar pipeline for transporting petroleum products  at a possible investment of Rs 1650 crore. Engineers Idea that did the Project Feasibility Report said it would require Rs 37.35 crore maintenance costs annually plus the 24 x 7 security expenses. It was grounded on basis of the opposition that apparently the then National Security Adviser MK Narayanan was heading. Every new chief minister gets an assurance but there has not been any headway.

Mother’s milk considered to be the best for a child has, in recent times, given way to man-made baby foods to large extent. Times change so does the opinion of lactating mothers. In Kashmir, it is true even at a time when 83 percent of the milk available in market has been proved to be contaminated.

Food is basic to life. It becomes more vital when it is baby food. Come winter and there are apprehensions of its availability. People are back to Stone Age. The dependence is on the supply from other side of Pir Panchal through the lone worn out, ailing road converts parents into hoarders. There are instances in which the expecting parents even make such purchases in advance.

Companies manufacturing baby foods have retail outlets in the valley while their commission and forwarding (C&F) agents monitor it remotely from Jammu and Chandigarh. This leaves valley in a grim situation when the extremity of winter hit the supply.

Market sources say that baby foods have a monthly turnover of more than Rs 40 lakh a month. But companies prefer to operate remotely. At any given time, the retailers stock baby food for around forty days. Wockhardt, one of the major players in the Kashmir market has three designated places in Srinagar, Sopore and Islamabad where they stock for the general masses and another one exclusively for the military personnel. “We have our warehousing in Jammu and in valley have stock for one month,” said manager of Wockhardt.

Wockhardt is producing two types of baby foods, Farex and protein x. The other big players in market are Nestle, Abbott, Danone and Raptacos. “Our stock is for around one and half month,” says Prince Athar Khan of Nestle. Supplies to Kashmir are linked to the advance payment as well. Many officials working in these companies believe that the company despite getting huge revenue from Kashmir market plays safe. “We can’t get it for more than one month as we have to send the demand draft in advance,” said manager of a company wishing anonymity. The brands available for babies right from day one of their birth includes Lactogen, Nan, Cerelac, Dexolac, Ferax, Lactodex 1,  Nestum, First food, and others.

There is a thin cushion – one month and the stake is of life. The parents are very much concerned as they raise genuine issues, “We as adults can survive with anything and everything but not the new born,” said Rubia, mother of a three-month baby.

Faith healers are still in business so are the Hakims, Tabeebs, and barbers. They all tackle a lot of patients in Kashmir. But that never prevented the growth of modern medicine. Apart from allopathy, there is still lot many practitioners of ayurveda, unani, acupuncture and many others systems of medicine in vogue. Jointly they have created a huge market in Kashmir that could be well over Rs 3000 crores a year with medicines alone making almost one-third of the pie.

“I am amazed,” said a tourist Srikant from a south Indian state, “That you have such a huge number of shops selling medicine and most of them will sell you any drug without a doctor’s prescription.”

When the Income Tax department, in 2010, decided to crack down on people with stacks of money, they started their campaign with the diagnostic centres in Kashmir. That was just an indicator that health sector is more moneyed than many other paying areas.

But what is interesting that the entire retail chain lacks any C&F backend within the valley. “A few companies have upgraded some of their major retailers to super-stockists but by and large almost all the major players in the market have their C&F outside Kahmir – in Jammu and in Punjab,” said Mohamaad Aasif, one of the chemists in Srinagar. “There were efforts in the past to get them shift part of their bases here but it did not succeed.

Till halcyon days, all the major pharma majors had their stockists and agents in Srinagar but after the turmoil the base gradually shifted to Jammu where lot of warehousing came up. Nobody actually made an effort to disturb the post-strife distribution chain. There were instances when shortage of medicine or simple unavailability created crisis. Aasif is aware of a case in which the supplier refused to deliver the medicine – an injection within 24 hours, and the patient had no option but to fly to Delhi with two attends in tow. Even the critical and life saving drugs were stopped.

The crisis was felt more acutely at the peak of economic blockade of 2008 when one young boy died of rabbies for want of vaccine. Anti-rabbies medication, like Insulin and many other drugs requires cold chain transportation. So acute was the shortage of medicine in the hospitals where a casualty was droping in by every half hour that PMO had to fly an IAF Hercules with medicine and surgical supplies on August 12, 2008.

As the Srinagar medical representatives came out on roads against blockade on medical supply to Kashmir, the then Divisional Commissioner wrote a formal letter to all the major players in the pharma sector asking them to have their wearhousing and C&F facility in Kashmir. It triggered a huge crisis as the distributors in Jammu opend a new front. One of their leaders issued a statement.

“Any organization attempting to disturb the existing distribution system in the state of Jammu and Kashmir after requests/threats from some anti-national Kashmir based associations, shall face non-cooperation from Jammu as also from rest of India, “ he said. He talked of “possible and impossible action” by the associations and “political parties” against the defaulting companies. “We warn the companies that our action against such defaulting anti-national company shall be so intense that will lead them to extinction”, he added. They started non-cooperation with one of the pharma majors who had supplies medicine to Kashmir market skipping the routine chain.

“It is not about businss, it is about facility,” said a trade leader from the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “If the C&F is with Jammu people, there is no harm, let them come and invest in Kashmir so that market does not suffer, at least on this count.” He said it is not always about agitations, even a severe winter can do away with the entire supply chain link forcing patients in Kashmir to suffer.

A senior executive of a major pharma company said neither of the majors has a facility here. “Dr Reddy’s have started a superstockist for pharmacology but the more critical oncology related manufacture is still sourced from Chandigarh,” he said. “Pfizer, Ranbaxy, PMS, Merc, Cadla, Glaxo you name the company, everybody has a huge market but nobody has C&F here.” Mankind and Hetero are possibily the only exceptions who have their C&F in Kashmir.

Non availability of this facility, Asif said makes people in Kashmir to spend more. “By an average, every patient, especially in winter tries to keep the stock for a month even if he or she does not need it and same is the case with the stockists who always purchase in bulk and for cash – a market practice that is more endemic to Kashmir alone.”

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