The Road Scare

Unless the road-keepers and the traffic managers will not sit with the stakeholders and identify the issues to be tackled, driving in the hills will continue spilling the blood

A police officer carrying a baby in his lap. He was recovered from the ill-fated bus that met an accident in Rajouri on September 15, 2022.

Every time, there would be a road accident and the first reaction from almost everybody would be like this: “Where in Doda?” This is because the roads in Chenab Valley have been the huge killers for many years now. The bowl together with Udhampur and Ramban has been reporting the goriest of road accidents in Jammu and Kashmir.

Last week, however, it was the Pir Panchal valley that was in news for all the wrong reasons. On September 14, a 28-seater mini bus on way to Gali Mandian from Poonch, a border hamlet, lost control over a sharp bend at Sawjian and fell deep into an almost 25-ft deep gorge. As many as 11 including four women were killed – mostly on the spot, and 26 others survived injured. Some of them are likely to survive crippled for the rest of their lives.

People who joined the rescue said the scene was horrifying. The rolling bus hit many boulders and was cut into pieces, along with the people, it carried. It was very difficult to retrieve the bodies in certain cases. Fearing retaliation, the bus driver had somehow fled injured. By now, he is in hospital.

“It was a 16 years old bus, the life of which was extended by the official by five more years,” a police officer revealed. “It was carrying 40 passengers including some minor school children.”

The death revisited the region, the next morning. On September 15, another bus was on its way from Surnakote to Jammu when it skidded off the road and fell into a gorge near Deri Ralyot in Rajouri’s Manjakote area. Four passengers were declared dead and almost all others are reported injured.

Passengers who survived the accident said the driver was “literally flying”. One of the persons who somehow survived the tragedy along with his daughter and her child said, he did not feel the driver ever using a brake, not even at the time when he literally drove it into the gorge. The police said they are looking into the accident. However, the most defining image of the accident is a police officer taking a baby in his lap, apparently retrieved from the ill-fated bus.

Killer Roads

Most of Jammu and Kashmir live off the plains. Off late, there is a massive increase in the number of vehicles even though the addition to road length is sluggish and disproportionate to the vehicle population growth. This has pushed Jammu and Kashmir to a situation where around 1000-odd people are killed in road accidents, every year.

The numbers were quite huge. For three years the deaths in road accidents had crossed a 4-digit figure. In 2010, 1073 persons were killed; a number which jumped to 1121 in 2011 and 1165, a year later. However, the numbers started decreasing and now, by an average, Jammu and Kashmir lose more than 950 in a year. Post-2019, most of the roads in Jammu and Kashmir remained deserted most of the time for the political situation and the Covid19. That is perhaps why there were only 728 in 2020 and 774 in 2021’s 5452 road accidents. In 2019, 996 people were killed in road accidents. There were 984 deaths in 2018, 926 in 2017, 958 in 2016, 917 in 2015, 992 in 2014, and 990 in 2013.

Destiny apart, road accidents take place for a variety of reasons. It could be bad roads as Jammu and Kashmir has in most of the hilly areas, especially in the Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal area in addition to the difficult roads in Reasi and Udhampur. Aged vehicles could be another factor. Rash driver has always remained a reason behind road accidents. Inadequate monitoring owing to staff shortage does add to the vulnerability. People not qualified to drive could be another reason. A lot of the best drivers operating in Jammu and Kashmir’s transport sector have vision issues and no survey has ever been carried out. More importantly, the buses could be overloaded because Jammu and Kashmir lacks an accountable and proper public transport system, especially in hilly areas.

Off late, there has been an over-emphasis on penalties. There has not been a serious effort in awareness, education and proper guidance by traffic police or the road transport department. Unless the issues are identified and responded to professionally, the stick will not help on all fronts. A proper plan is required to be created in consultation with stakeholders and start its implementation in the twin major cities of Srinagar and Jammu, which account for more than two-thirds of the active traffic across Jammu and Kashmir.

The Kashmir Story

The 10 districts of Kashmir offer a classic case for studying traffic systems. Thanks to the absence of a better public transport system, Kashmir has more than two-thirds of the personal cars in Jammu and Kashmir. Owing to militancy and the borders in two of the 10 districts, huge convoys are on the move every time, almost everywhere. Since Kashmir is a tourist place, it brings in hundreds of vehicles on daily basis – more than two million visitors have visited Kashmir so far and it is already a record.

Besides, there has not been a huge change in the length of the roads for some time. In fact, in areas like Srinagar, there is not much of the possibility of laying new roads.

Kashmir is totally dependent on trucks for every single import from LPG to liquid oxygen and vegetable to rice. No less than 5000 trucks move either way to Kashmir on daily basis. Every fruit harvest requires tens of thousands of trucks.

To add to the mess, this is the only place on earth where Google Maps fails because every road has a change that either Google has not updated or has failed in locating from the skies. This goes to the credit of the situation. “When an engineer designs a road, he sees the requirement of connectivity,” explained an engineer, who wishes not to be named. “Once the road is ready for use, the security set up comes with its bunkers and concertina wires because they have to tackle the vulnerability if any. Once that is done, the Traffic Police comes with its own divider system. Some routes in Srinagar have one tube perpetually closed for years now and if you happen to visit the by-pass, the original crossings have been closed and new crossings have been created which are uglier and time-consuming.”

Despite all this, Kashmir performs better. It only accounts for less than one-third of the road accidents in Jammu and Kashmir.  In the first seven months of 2022, Jammu and Kashmir reported 3617 road accidents in which 477 persons were killed and 4953 others were injured.

Kashmir reported only 1315 road accidents in this period as a result of which 155 persons died. Though not small but given the scale of the vehicular population and the problems the sector faces, this much will otherwise happen.

Negative Interventions

Till a decade back, public transport was better in Srinagar, a city where more than two million people live for eight months of the year. In Lal Chowk, there were three major bus stands – the KMDA stand, the mini-bus stand near BSNL Exchange and the Lala Rukh Hotel Stand. The latter was closed, and the former was occupied by a new infrastructure that is actually not in use. Reaching any destination within Srinagar was easier as mini-buses would serve from Gaw Kadal, Exhibition Crossing and Lala Rukh. Barring one, nothing exists.

Reaching any destination in Kashmir from Srinagar was so easy as people would trek to Batamaloo and board a big bus. The stand was closed by the last “popular” government. Now the people going to the south in big buses have to hire a bus to reach Pandrethan and those going to the north have to make it to Parimpora.

The Sumo’s had done the unthinkable in last more than 25 years. They changed the way Kashmir travelled. They would go anywhere and the time consumed in travel was reduced by more than half. They were operating from the margins of the roads as they lacked proper address. Now, they are being discouraged from entering Srinagar.

Barring the few skeletal routes within the city, all the areas that were once serviced by mini-buses are not being taken care of.

A situation has emerged that getting into Srinagar is very costly and a lot of people have stopped entering Srinagar and it has started hurting the business. What is interesting is that the people having cars can go anywhere but the people who travel by public transport spend more money but reach nowhere. “We are being treated like criminals,” one Sumo driver said. “They chase us as if we carry guns. If they catch us, they beat us too.”

What is interesting is the data on the penalty. In the first seven months, Traffic Police across Jammu and Kashmir registered 543303 challans and of them, 324783 were in 10 districts of Kashmir! How can a place having a 36.35 per cent share in road accidents and less than 33 per cent in fatalities will have a penalty share of 59.77 per cent?

In 2021, Srinagar city recorded a total of 70880 challans. This year, in the first seven months, the city has recorded 155709 challans already.

Seemingly, the traffic managers in Jammu and Kashmir have misplaced priorities. Or, is it?

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