The snowfall started in Srinagar on January 3. Within a day, the city lanes were clogged with more than two feet of snow, making it impossible for residents to venture out even during emergencies.

Watching the snow from his house in Miskeen Bagh, Abdul Qayoom Khan grew anxious. His sister-in-law had tested positive for Covid-19 and was on oxygen support. The oxygen cylinder to which she was hooked was running dry. A replacement was needed.

“Everything was blocked and the streets were covered under snow,” the 58-year-old businessman recalled. “My nephew went out on foot. After many hours, he managed to get an oxygen cylinder for his mother from somewhere.”

But the family could not stop worrying. “We were afraid about how we would take her to the hospital, if her condition deteriorated,” said Khan. “The ambulance couldn’t have entered our lane because of uncleared snow.”

On January 5, when no one showed up from the municipal corporation to clear the snow, Khan along with his son and neighbours picked up shovels and spent five hours clearing an 80-metre stretch. “The snow had frozen and it was really difficult to break it,” he recalled. The eight men were able to clear a narrow path, just enough for a single person to walk on.

“I am a kidney transplant patient yet I even picked up a shovel to help out,” said Khan. “We had no alternative.”

Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is home to over a million people. But its municipal corporation doesn’t have a single snow clearance machine.

A car is seen covered in snow during a heavy snowfall in Srinagar on January 5, 2021. Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

An old problem

While major roads and link roads are cleared by two government departments – Mechanical Engineering and Roads and Building – Srinagar Municipal Corporation is responsible for snow clearance in the city’s famed narrow lanes.

Officially, the lanes and bylanes number 7,500, but Junaid Azim Mattu, the mayor of the corporation told reporters on January 7 that the actual count is double.

The only equipment available with the corporation to clear snow, he claimed, were 12-15 earthmovers and loaders used for garbage collection. “Tell me, how are 15 small JCBs enough to clear snow in 15,000 lanes?” he asked.

Unlike an earthmover, a snow clearance machine is equipped with ploughs or blades on the front to push snow to the side of a road. “If we look at our equipment and the area we have to cover, it will take us six months to clear snow in the city,” Mattu said.

The mayor blamed the problem on his predecessors. “Since the last 40 years, no snow clearance machine has been bought by the corporation,” he said.

Purchase delay

But Mattu was first elected as mayor in November 2018, a position he held till June 2020, when he lost a no-confidence motion in the municipal corporation. Six months after his ouster from the office, he returned as a mayor in November. Why has he not fixed the problem?

Mattu claimed the civic body had approved a plan of procuring around 30 snow clearance machines in November 2018, soon after he first took charge. “We made that decision last winter so that we don’t have problems next winter,” he said. “But the file is still pending with the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.”

By this, he meant municipal officials were stalling his proposal. The elected mayor heads the corporation but its officials report to the administration of the Union Territory, currently under lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha.

Gazanfar Ali, commissioner of Srinagar Municipal Corporation, confirmed that the organisation’s finance committee had approved the procurement of “some” snow clearance machines. However, the purchase was delayed because the Supreme Court passed guidelines mandating the use of less polluting BS-VI [Bharat Stage Six] vehicles, which companies are still in the process of manufacturing. “Once they are available in the market, we will procure them,” he said.

“We hope to have them by next winter provided if we purchase them,” he added. “It’s not a costly project. It costs something between one and one and a half crore rupees.”

People left on their own

But the real cost of civic failure in Srinagar is far larger, say residents.

“Our dustbins are overflowing with garbage but the loaders haven’t come to pick it up because the lane is covered under snow,” rued Bilkees Akhtar, who lives in Shireen Bagh, barely a kilometre and half from the headquarters of Srinagar Municipal Corporation.

In Hawal locality, a man died at home on January 10. His neighbours pooled in money to hire a tractor to clear the road. “Otherwise, it would have been difficult to take his body to the graveyard,” said Javaid Ahmad, a resident of Madin Sahib area in Hawal. “And mourners would not have been able to visit his home.”

The situation is far worse in the far-flung areas of Kashmir Valley. Almost every day, stories emerge of residents walking miles on snow-covered roads to reach hospitals, sometimes carrying an ailing patient on a stretcher.

On January 5, a pregnant woman in Shopian district gave birth to a child on a stretcher, 7 km short of a hospital. Both the infant and mother are reported to be fine.