Winter’s Tale

by Shams Irfan

People ferrying transformer on the boat. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

As the season’s first snowfall carpets the vale under a white blanket, a sight that has once inspired poets and kings alike, Kashmir is set for three months of harsh winters. It is not a blessing anymore.

In good old days, the arrival of winter was welcomed, even celebrated in some areas, as people would finally relax after labouring in their fields. In the absence of television or radio, people in affluent localities would invite Dastangoh’s (local storytellers), to stay entertained as it snowed outside.

But last three decades of conflict has denied Kashmiris of that luxury. Now, for eight million residents of Kashmir, winters come with a basket full of miseries.

The first sign of its arrival is not the fall of leaves on Chinar trees, but frequent power cuts. Despite being the hub of hydroelectricity people living in the valley are forced to spend long and cold winter nights without electricity.

The argument given by the successive government is that use of heating appliances put more load on the already overloaded grids.

But by that logic, cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Mumbai etc. should be starved of electricity during peak summer months as more air-conditioners are used to beat the heat. Delhi has more than double the Kashmir’s population. So why to blame the Kashmiris only?

Electricity has always been at the centre of Kashmir’s political discourse. From former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah telling his voters to ‘throw away meters and use heaters’ to PDP’s late Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed vowing to bring back power projects taken over by the NHPC, electricity or lack of it is an emotional issue in Kashmir.

Locals often cry over the paradox of long power cuts in a place like Kashmir, which is abundant in hydro-electricity.

The total requirement of electricity in Jammu and Kashmir during peak winters is around 2000 MW, while Delhi’s peak summer requirement is over 7400 MW.

Another crisis that is purely winter-centric and Kashmir specific is damage to power supply transformers. Only a Kashmiri can understand what it means when a power supply transformer gets damaged during winters.

Lack of back-up plan and perhaps vision too forces people to take the task of getting these damaged transformers repaired unto themselves. There is no system in place that would ensure a quick replacement.

It has become a norm to collect money within the community for the repair and transportation of these power supply transformers. In some cases, it takes months to get them repaired and installed.

Out of 600 power supply transformers damaged in last November’s snowfall, most of them are yet to be repaired. These areas continue to live in the darkness trying to beat the winter chill by traditional means.

But electricity is not the only basic requirement that eludes Kashmiris in winters. With just a few flakes of snow, roads across Kashmir turn into water-bodies. It takes days to pump-out the logged water and clear the roads. And once it is cleared, we have another problem at hand: damaged roads. This has become a routine now since the last few decades, as no one seems to care.

These roads become practically un-negotiable for commuters’ as they have to manage their way through potholes. The argument given by the government is that the macadam used in the construction of roads cannot withstand the onslaught of elements of nature like snow and rain. The repetition of this argument over the decades has made people believe in it like a fact.

No one seems to ask authorities that how come a few inches of snowfall or rainfall will damage a road if the material used is of good quality.

The annual average amount of precipitation in Jammu and Kashmir is 725 mm (28.54 inches), which is equal or in some cases less than most of the European countries.

Shams Irfan

But despite the same amount of precipitation roads in Europe does not get damaged the way they get damaged in Kashmir. But Kashmir cannot be Europe, we are told repeatedly; at least when it comes to providing world-class infrastructure and facilities. They have the latest technology that we lack, is the most used argument by the authorities to stop any questioning by the people. So we are told not to fall in the comparison trap.

But it is the government that makes such comparisons when it suits them. ‘We will make Kashmir tourist heaven at par with Europe’ is now the most clichéd line used by the authorities.

But rather than clichéd promises what Kashmiris care about is a better life. That is not too much to ask for.

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