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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji in Waltangu Nar

February 26, 2005

In the mountains, one normally hears only the wind whistle by. Up here, on the road to Waltangu Nar, the silence is broken by the crowing of ravens and crows. They have descended by the hundreds, drawn by the prospect of meat -- the dozens of cattle that died in the avalanche.

The Pir Panjal ranges used to be heavily forested. Now most trees have been cut to meet the rising need for timber for fuel and houses. One theory is that the avalanche had such an impact was because the trees that normally break it were absent.

Wild animals abound in the region. In Waltangu, there was much excitement when people spotted what seemed from a distance a feline animal. The yellow reddish body stood out against the snow, but it was miles away, a small blob against the white of the mountainside. No one could make out what animal it was; one heard the entire gamut -- tiger, leopard, cheetah, even lion.

Later, some villagers said the previous night, bears had come down. The animals were drawn by the crowing of the ravens attracted to the dead animals, they said.

Clear the snow or tend to politicians?

Omar Abdullah was spotted making his way up the road to Waltangu Nar. Omar, president of the National Conference, the Opposition party in Jammu and Kashmir, is perhaps the first politician to visit the affected area.

"It is sad if I am the first. I should have been the last," he says as he climbs steadily. Accompanying him is a procession of people -- policemen with guns, officials, party workers, villagers.

Would it not have been better if the people accompanying him helped the villagers clear the snow and debris to find survivors?

Abdullah had complained a day earlier how officials were too busy tending to politicians rather than the disaster affected.

Are the authorities listening?

The main complaint among people is that the government has done nothingl. Whatever was done, especially in the initial stages, was by people from neighbouring villages who went up to Waltangu Nar to help the survivors and clear the snow.

They brought the survivors down and looked after them.

If not being responsive is bad enough, it is worse when government officials seek to hamper others who want to help. At Qazigund, from where one takes a turn towards Waltangu, vehicles are lined up. A policeman, in his extremely questionable wisdom, has decreed that nobody can go up to the affected village.

Why? "The road is a single lane and will block vehicles coming down," he replies. His intellect boggles the mind: it is morning when people go up to help the affected village. The vehicles and people will turn back once light starts fading. No one can work in the pitch dark night that envelops Waltangu Nar. Electricity is as remote as snow is from the Thar desert.

Not surprisingly, tempers flare and some volunteers protest, shouting 'Allah O Akbar'. They ignore the most ridiculous order and drive past the pompous policeman.

Other vehicles follow till the end of the road. There is no vehicle coming from the opposite direction. 

Militancy: All but finished

Militancy is clearly on the decline. I am visiting the state after almost six years. In June 1999, returning one day to my hotel a bit late, my taxi driver had exclaimed, "This is the first time in 10 years I have switched on my car headlights!"

Now, it is common to see headlights of private vehicles and shops open till late evening. Many shops would stay open even longer but don't do so only because electric supply is so bad that one is forced to run generators to illuminate the shop.

Even if it is on the decline, it is not finished. Army vehicles ply the roads. Army and paramilitary personnel are along roads, highways in the towns and villages. Even as the administration grappled with the avalanches, militants attacked a government office killing security forces and a civilian.

It is hardly surprising that the security forces remain on the alert. They have not reached the stage where they can afford to relax.

Road to nowhere

Srinagar is linked to India through a single highway -- National Highway Number 1A links Srinagar to Jammu and further to the rest of India.

The road goes through a major tunnel that cuts through the Pir Panjal mountains: the Jawahar tunnel. Snowfall has shut the tunnel for almost a month. Trucks have lined up for miles, waiting for the tunnel to open. No one is willing to hazard a guess when it will be.

This means there is a severe shortage of food and supplies in Srinagar. Almost everything is in short supply: milk, vegetables and, most importantly, cooking gas, which is also used to keep homes warm in the absence of electricity to run heaters.

A friend took his family to Jammu after he found it difficult to get milk for his two young daughters. At least he could afford to move out. Others have no choice but to stay back and get frustrated.

On the road to Qazigund, work is on for a railway line that will place Srinagar on India's railway map. But work is the wrong word, as no one seems to be working.

One reason could be that excessive snow has stopped work; but that cannot be a permanent excuse. The railway line was to be completed by 2007. People say nothing will happen before 2010. The cynics say it may well be 2015 before one can take a train to Srinagar.

Till then, the roads, perennially at risk from avalanches, excessive snowfall and landslides, remain the only link to Srinagar.

The government has begun to airlift supplies to Srinagar and fly out people, especially those in need of medical help. But in India, air connectivity, while useful during emergencies, touches too few to make an impact.

The masses of India need either road or the railways. The people of Srinagar have the former. Even that has been snowed in.

The Rediff Specials

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