Living on the edge

Landlocked Kashmir villages need tunnels to prevent road deaths

Living on the edge
Last Friday 11 people were killed on Sadhna Top on Kupwara-Tangdhar road when an avalanche hit, causing their vehicles to roll into the gorge below. This road connects Karnah tehsil with the rest of Kashmir. Karnah used to be part of Muzaffarabad district before 1947 but now falls in the border district of Kupwara on this side. It faces the Neelum valley in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and is closer to it than Srinagar.

People were furious when news of the accident broke, seeing the tragedy as the result of the apathy of successive governments. The deaths are just some of the many that take place in this forgotten part of Kashmir.

A highly militarized area for strategic reasons, Karnah is landlocked and the only months residents can move about are in the summer. Winter brings horrors for them as they are mostly cut off from the rest of the world.

The tragedy could have been averted if short- and long-term measures had been taken. The administration could have been alert to weather conditions and not allowed traffic. Sadhna is known as a death trap in winters. In the last five years, 185 people have lost their lives because of the road. Just two days before this accident, a 36-year-old social activist, Altaf Khawaja, died of a brain hemorrhage as his family took seven hours to reach Srinagar after he felt sick. Infrastructure in Karnah is neglected despite what the government says. In 70 years, Karnah has become an example of what happens when there is no will to improve the quality of life of a people even though it is strategically important. There is some semblance of development but it has fallen short on roads.

People hoisting a body up at Sadhna Top. Photo-Kashmir Life

From 1996 to 2014, the constituency was represented by Kafil ur Rehman of the National Conference and during his membership, his party ruled the state for 10 years. During that time, though, it failed to do the one thing that the people of the area have consistently demanded: build a tunnel between TP Chowkibal and Zalra curve that would help 70,000 people avoid a dangerous pass at the height of 10,500 feet. For Karnahis, this tunnel was a lifeline.

The otherwise neglected Karnah is conveniently trotted out by politicians when they want an example for the “normalcy project” especially when militancy peaks. Whenever the Government of India and local mainstream politicians need to show Kashmir off as normal, public meetings take place in areas such as Karnah, Gurez and Machil. Since their people are gullible and vulnerable, as they are landlocked and often at the mercy of the Army, they have no choice but to fall in line. In return they get only fake promises.

For the last two years, Karnah has had two legislators, MLA Raja Manzoor and MLC Mirchal. They are part of a regime that has not done anything significant to alleviate the people’s suffering. On the other hand, all the lawmakers do is complain of their own helplessness. Raja Manzoor had this to say about the situation in his area during an assembly session in January 2017: “I wish all roads leading to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir had been open so that I could take patients in Karnah to PaK via Teetwal as the standard of the health department of PaK is far better than that of the hospitals in my area.”
Sadhna is known as a death trap in winters. In the last five years, 185 people have lost their lives because of the road

This statement encapsulates what it is like to live on both sides of an artificial border in a remote area. Villagers often invoke the other side in order to be heard because they rely on mechanisms or facilities. For example, Saidpora village on the Line of Control (LoC) would be left high and dry if the other side turned off the tap as it is dependent on it for irrigation. In another example, on February 27, 2016, the people in Karnah organised a massive march, from Tangdhar to Teetwal, for rations from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. It was to protest against the Food Safety Act, which they believed was aimed at “starving the locals” who did not own the usual rural landholdings. The march was, however, stopped at Chitrakote, 3km short of the LoC after officials intervened and gave the people assurances. On January 8, again thousands of people gathered in Tangdhar to reiterate the demand and march towards Teetwal to bring home the point that it was better for them to move towards the Pakistani side.

These arguments are also aired when journalists visit Karnah. The villagers make their case based on what they see is happening on the other side, in Neelum and Leepa valley, with their macadamized roads, uninterrupted power supplies and better healthcare.

When former president APJ Abdul Kalam visited the area during his presidency he had also assured the people that a tunnel would be taken up as a priority. These were ideas that just stayed on paper: “These include a 6.5-kilometre tunnel at Sadhna that will improve the connectivity with the Tangdhar area (along the LoC) in Kupwara district, another at Furkian (Keran Sector) and a 3.5-km tunnel at Zamindar Gali (Macchil Sector),” Brigadier A K Das of the Border Roads Organisation told Press Trust India in February 2016. In contrast, the Pakistan government has already approved a tunnel in Leepa valley and given the contract to a Chinese company.

Official apathy is one reason why no progress is made on these fronts. But another reason is the politics between India and Pakistan that ultimately makes the suffering of the people worse. The areas divided by the LoC are mere meters away from each other but the boundaries created in 1947 and afterwards have divided the people and deprived them of using facilities they need. If the roads were open at least to serve the needy on either side, it would offer some relief. But the barricades erected by both countries makes this impossible.

In 2005, Teetwal was opened after the earthquake and a bridge connected the divided people who can otherwise see each other from across the border. Though a small number of people cross over if they have LoC permits in the summer, the actual blockade is in the mind of the government which has held the people and their area hostage. Connectivity in all parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is the only solution to reduce the suffering. This suffering caused by an unresolved political issue that is compounded by the use of military might that targets civilians on both sides. People have a right to move freely as far as the constitutional provisions are concerned. Free movement can help end tragedies like that of January 5. But at the same time, the state and central governments should wake up and concede the demand for a tunnel on a route. This is the only solution besides being vigilant during these treacherous times.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at