A nine-month pregnant woman left her home in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district along with her husband on a cold morning. She struggled to walk and gasped for breath as she made the treacherous journey to the nearest health centre.
It had snowed heavily across Kashmir and the roads were buried under the white thick layer. The pregnant Tahira Begum, 26, was careful not to slip and hurt her unborn baby.
The usual 20-minute walk to the nearby Safapora highway, where she had a chance to board public transport, was taking her two harrowing hours. The couple had started their walk at 9:30 and it was now nearing 11:30.
“They waited for almost half an hour to find a vehicle,” Ayaz Ahmad, Begum’s relative, said.
The nightmare was yet to end. The delivery was not conducted on the same day due to the shortage of blood at the health centre and Begum gave birth to a baby girl the next morning.
The incident last week was one of the highlights of hardships faced by the people in Kashmir as heavy snowfall carpeted the region and the administration failed to make a quick response.
The social media was soon flooded with pictures and video clips of patients struggling to make their way to the hospitals; some of them being carried on makeshift stretchers and earth-movers.
The snowfall last week was rare. It snowed heavily for several days and in south Kashmir districts, where the impact of the storm was maximum, the roads and orchards were filled with four to five feet of snow.
The snow was not the only adversary of normal life. The administration’s lack of preparedness and its snail-paced approach was more troubling.
The first flakes of snow swirled through the air on the morning of 3 January. It was a pleasant scene; the first snow. The situation, however, was soon to change. Nearly 96 hours later, with only a few pauses, the snowfall had crushed the administration’s claim of preparedness under its weight.
On the same day, roads got blocked, air traffic was disrupted, exams were postponed, lanes and bylanes were clogged and people were stuck indoors.
Even a week later, very little had changed for the people in Kashmir. The tryst with snow-borne problems continued. The administration’s ill-planned snow clearance had halved the capacity of the roads and pathways were still lost under snow.
Facing a failure, the Srinagar administration issued an urgent appeal to the public to avoid the use of private vehicles and other non-essential transportation to facilitate snow-clearance operation without any hindrance.
There are at least five departments tasked to clear the snow – the Mechanical Engineering Department, Roads and Buildings (R&B), Srinagar Municipal Corporation, Urban Local Bodies, and The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) – and all of them failed to do their work. Some complained of lack of manpower, some made excuses of lack of machinery.
To counter the blame, Junaid Azim Mattu, the Mayor of Srinagar, held a press conference and said the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), tasked to clear snow from thousands of lanes and bylanes in the city, lacked the equipment to instantly deal with heavy snowfall.
He said the SMC was staffed with only 12-15 JCBs (excavators) and loaders to deal with the situation after a snowfall. “It is unfortunate that 15 JCBs and loaders are supposed to clear 15,000 lanes across Srinagar,” he complained.
Pandurang K. Pole, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir who heads the civilian administration of the valley’s ten districts, said 4200 out of 5600 bylanes were cleaned off snow within a week. “ It was the first time in the past 16 years that such a huge amount of snow was accumulated in this short span of time and snow clearance is done on a priority basis,” he said.
“An advanced machinery that will aid us has been ordered by the government and will be reaching here by 25 of this month,” said Pole.
Aamir Ali, Nodal Officer Emergency Operation Centre, said the snow clearance operations were monitored at the divisional level as well as at the district level.
Ali said the Mechanical Engineering Department is tasked for snow clearance of the main arterial roads while the secondary roads – roads and link roads – are the task of the R&B Department. The lanes and bylanes of Srinagar are to be cleared by the SMC and in other towns by the Urban Local Bodies. PMGSY clears snow on roads constructed under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna.
Inconvenience not regretted
Despite claims of preparedness by the administration, the residents of the Kashmir region continued to suffer even as the sky became clear and several days had passed.
Burhan Fayaz*, 27, had left his shop in Lal Chowk, the commercial nerve centre of Srinagar, at 6:15 pm and reached his home in Rawalpora after nearly two hours on 11 January – four days after the last snowfall and the first Monday since.
“The city was full jam-packed. Huge chunks of snow were accumulated on roadsides which is yet to be cleared,” he said.
The failure of the administration to clear the roads off snow in the aftermath of snowfall led to widespread traffic jams in the city of Srinagar on Monday, a week after the heavy snowfall that had persisted for several days began.
Srinagar residents say that the administration has not yet been able to clean the snow-covered roads, causing commuters to face difficulties. “They have made a hell of our lives and are only available on social media for photo operations,” said Fayaz adding that he hasn’t seen such worst condition of Srinagar before.
He added: “If this is the condition of the city one can assume how worse the situation might be in the villages of Kashmir. This Naya Kashmir is proving to be a disaster.”
On a mad Monday, people across the city were irked as they spent hours stuck in the traffic jams on almost every stretch due to the snow on roads.
In a video that went viral on social media and became the defining image of the mess, a delivery boy was seen riding a horse in Srinagar’s old city as he attempted to reach a customer.
Junaid Azim Mattu, the Mayor of Srinagar, however, had other theories. “The traffic jam has nothing to do with the snow clearance. The vehicular movement is on main roads and main roads are clear everywhere, even 90% of link roads are also clear,” he said.
Not just in Srinagar, far-flung areas were also in a mess and devoid of basic necessities. A 35-year-old woman of Kanidajan village in Budgam district had fallen ill on Sunday and was taken to the hospital in a bulldozer.
Srinagar had received 2.12 feet of snowfall in the first week, while the south Kashmir districts recorded the heavier volume of snow with some areas recording five to six feet of snowfall.
At Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital, the casualty section was a mess on Monday last week with a huge crowd of patients waiting for doctors who couldn’t reach the hospital on time because of the traffic jams.
One such doctor, Irtifa Kanth, caught in a traffic jam had to travel ten kilometers to relieve his colleague who had completed the night shift. As soon as Kanth stepped out of his house, he found the roads full of snow. The travel to the hospital seemed a never ending journey.
“Normally it would take me 45 minutes maximum but that day I reached the hospital after nearly three hours,” Kanth recalled.
As per Kanth, many of his colleagues couldn’t make it to the hospital, delaying the treatment of emergency patients. “It was a highly demanding situation.”