public transport kashmir
Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

On a July morning, dozens of passengers had gathered at the bus stand in Batamaloo, chatting and loitering around as they waited for passenger vehicles to take them to different destinations.

The sight of a grey colored passenger taxi sent the crowd into a tizzy. The driver shouted for the name of the destination: “Tangmarg.” A cab that can accommodate a maximum of nine passengers was surrounded by dozens. Securing a spot was the priority–social distancing, or wearing a mask, wasn’t. 

Kashmir’s public transport had just returned to streets after months of lull; earlier, either the government imposed clampdown in August 2019 kept them off the road or then the other lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

But in Batamaloo, in the cab, people — without wearing facemasks, which are now an in distinguish part of social etiquette — sat, ate, and talked to each other absent-mindedly. 

The scenes give a sense of relief that Kashmir might have defeated COVID-19 — only to realise it hasn’t. More than a month has passed since then and the cases of the infection are soaring. Nearly everyone around us knows a person infected with the virus. The worst? Someone who died of it. 

As per the administration’s guidelines for public transport, issued before public transport was stopped again, vehicle drivers have to ensure that their vehicles are sanitized at the end of the trip. Drivers as well as the passengers are supposed to wear masks while traveling and the vehicle owners have to make hand sanitizers available and ensure that no passenger is allowed to board without sanitizing their hands. 

Meanwhile, social distancing has to be maintained on the vehicles and passengers will not be allowed to sit on the front seats next to the driver. And drivers are supposed to wear protective gear throughout the trip. According to the orders issued by Transport Department, the public transport owners are allowed for charging 30 percent extra of existing authorized fare by carrying passengers of below vehicle’s capacity, till further orders. 

Dr. Naveed Nazir, Head of Department, Chest Disease Hospital, Dalgate Srinagar, noticed that the cases “increased really fast after the public transport [had] started”. He had added: “People really need to understand the impact of this disease and they need to follow the advisory. Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing is the only way to prevent the spread, there are no other ways. Prevention is the only way out.”

And the statistics support it too. The cases are rapidly increasing: with a population of 1.25 crores, the number of cases in J-K has surpassed 28,000 while more than 500 have died. However, on the street, it’s not all rosy as some are forced to break the rules. 

Even as public transport remains officially disallowed, some vehicles can be seen moving along the highways and within the city, packed with passengers and barely any of them masked.

When transport had been allowed by the administration, 39-year-old Nisar Ahmed Reshie, a driver from Tangmarg, travelled to Srinagar daily but allowed passengers to the vehicle’s full capacity. Whilst the passengers accuse the drivers of not following the rules, Mr. Reshie, along with few other drivers, claims that passengers do not agree to pay the 30 percent additional fare.

“I keep waiting for hours but passengers don’t board my vehicle if I tell them to pay a double fare. So I am forced to break rules in order to earn my livelihood,” said Mr. Reshie. He added that not only drivers but the passengers should also be charged or punished for not maintaining social-distancing in the cabs. “It should be everybody’s responsibility,” said Mr. Reshie. “Why should we pay if the passengers do not listen?” 

The drivers are able to do just one round per day currently, said another taxi driver, and that doesn’t earn much cash. “We have spent so many months without doing anything,” he said of the subsequent lockdowns. “When the passengers will not board our vehicles, we won’t earn anything.”

Meanwhile, Pradeep Kumar, Transport Commissioner J-K, believes that people need to impose rules on themselves. “If the traveler is not wearing a mask, he is not only putting himself at danger but also others,” he had said at the time transport had been allowed. “If this awareness has still not been able to spread amongst people, then it is a very difficult situation.”

Since the unlocking began, all states of India have started functioning again. Similar rules were created by the governments for preventing the spread of coronavirus. But, apparently, humans are not much different.

A lull of more than a year since August 2019 has surely made people desperate to venture out. Some have also believed and propagated, that COVID-19 is a conspiracy theory. Well, it isn’t. The phrase, learn to live with it, has a learning: mask up!

The story originally appeared in our 17-23 August 2020 print edition.

On Sunday, the Srinagar administration ordered the reopening of the district and allowed the public transport back on road. Here are the updated guidelines.

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