Sadawar Hussain is dejected. He works as a salesman at a large eatery on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway as it passes through Udhampur.
Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government, currently headed by Governor Satya Pal Mallik, had issued an unusual order, banning civilian traffic on the highway every Sunday and Wednesday until May 31. “Keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the national highway during the Parliamentary elections and associated possibility of any fidayeen terror attack on security forces’ convoys, the state government has notified specified days in a week for the movement of security forces from Srinagar to Jammu,” the order said.
It was on this highway that a suicide bomber from Pulwama district drove a car packed with explosives into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy, killing 40. On the two specified days, the order said, civilian traffic was to stay off the highway from 4 am to 5 pm.
For Hussain, the order means two days of no business at all. “Our business depends on the movement of civilian vehicles. If there are no vehicles, it means no customers. Due to the secretariat rush, business in March-April is good,” Hussain said. He was referring to “Durbar move”, the annual journey of the Jammu and Kashmir government and bureaucracy from the winter capital of Jammu to the summer capital of Srinagar.
Shahbaz Ahmad, a restaurant owner in Ramban, which falls on the Jammu section of the highway, worried about losing business as well. According to him, it would mean fewer customers stopping by at shops on the five days the highway was open. “When the highway remains closed, everyone prefers to reach home as quickly as possible on the next day. That will affect our business. It’s worrying,” he said.
In the Kashmir Valley, the order has set off ripples of outrage. On April 7, the first day of the ban, Kashmir’s mainstream politicians hit the streets in protest. Both the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement and the People’s Democratic Party have challenged the order in the high court. The case is listed for hearing on April 9.
An arterial road
The order deals with 270 kilometres of highway from Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in North Kashmir. It is the main road link between Kashmir and the rest of India. It is also an arterial road for the Valley. The highway cuts across five districts in the Valley while major routes to other districts also branch out from it. Several key hospitals, railway stations, government offices and schools line the highway.
While the stretch from Udhampur to the Banihal tunnel is mostly single lane, the highway widens after it emerges in the Valley, splitting into four lanes from Qazigund in South Kashmir to Narbal in Srinagar. After Narbal, the highway narrows again to two lanes till Baramulla.
Bad roads and congestion have meant civilian traffic can only move in one direction on the Udhampur-Banihal stretch. “It means if I leave for Jammu from Srinagar on Tuesday then I can only return on Thursday because Wednesday will be exclusively for security convoys,” explained Showkat Ahmad, a taxi driver from Srinagar. “I will lose a day’s work and have to spend extra money for my lodging and food in Jammu.”
Not to mention the traffic pile up. “A day after the ban, it’s two days’ traffic that will ply on the road. It will be chaos,” he said. Indeed, on April 8, after the first day of the ban, the highway saw hours of traffic jams. It took vehicles over 12 hours to complete a journey of less than 300 kilometres.
Businessman Firdous Ahmad, who lives in Banihal, is worried about his ailing father. “Last time I had to take him to hospital the Jawahar tunnel was closed due to snow and we returned. I then took him to the hospital [in Srinagar] by train,” Firdous shared. “What if he gets sick again and there’s no train? How will I take him to Srinagar?”
After the outcry in the Valley, the government said there was no “blanket ban” on the movement of civilian vehicles on Sundays and Wednesdays. It announced exceptions for schoolchildren, government employees, emergency services and tourist vehicles, all of which would be allowed to pass after due scrutiny and verification. The government also appointed local magistrates to issue passes for people in emergencies.
“For medical emergencies, special magistrates will be on the roads and give out spot passes. Numbers will also be shared at district levels to ensure people don’t face any inconvenience [during] an emergency,” said Baseer Khan, divisional commissioner, Kashmir, at a press conference on Friday.
But these assurances have only fuelled anger, first against the order and then against the government itself. “Will a patient have to wait first for a pass from magistrate to travel to hospital? This is oppression,” said a resident of Bijbehara in South Kashmir’s Anantnag.
A blow to the Valley’s economy
Menawhile, the Valley’s business community has projected a loss of Rs 30 crore to the economy for every day of the ban. “Apart from that, the worst affected is the transport community and labour class. We haven’t estimated that loss yet,” said Mohammad Yasin Khan, chairman of the Kashmir Economic Alliance, a conglomerate of various trade bodies in Kashmir.
“They [government] are least bothered. There’s no one whom you can talk to. There are advisors [to the governor] but it’s as equal as talking to a wall,” Khan rued.
Besides, Khan felt, the ban would hit tourism in the Valley. “When ordinary people from India visit Kashmir during this ban, they will feel there’s a war going on in Kashmir. Who’ll come here in such a situation? I think the exact consequences of this ban will show in a month or so,” he added.
Meanwhile, Kashmiris are already gearing up for the second day of ban, coming up on April 10. “Unlike Sunday, Wednesday is a working day. Schools, banks, offices and other institutions will be open,” said Fayaz Ahmad, an apple grower from Pulwama district. “It will be chaos and the government will be responsible for it.”