Politicians cutting across party lines came out strongly against the J&K Governor administration’s move to shut a 270-km stretch of the national highway from Udhampur to Baramulla to daytime civilian traffic on two days of the week, with former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announcing that she would move court against the “callous and absurd ban”, National Conference president Farooq Abdullah slamming the “order of a dictatorship”, and People’s Conference chairman Sajad Lone saying the Governor’s order had created a “humanitarian disaster”.
The government has cited the recent suicide bombing of a security forces convoy in Pulwama — which killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel — as the reason for restricting traffic. There was widespread resentment in the Valley on the first day of the civilian traffic ban, even as people braced for far worse on Wednesday, which, unlike Sunday, will be a working day.
What is the significance of Jammu and Kashmir’s main highway?
The lifeline of J&K
The entire length of the national highway — Jammu-Srinagar-Uri — runs 370 km, nearly three-fourths of which has been ordered shut to civilian traffic from dawn to dusk on Wednesdays and Sundays. The highway is the lifeline of the Kashmir Valley — not just the only road link that connects Kashmir to the outside world but also the key highway that connects Srinagar with the southern and northern districts of the Valley. The highway passes through five of the Valley’s 10 districts, and highways to at least two more districts branch out from it. The Jammu-Srinagar-Uri national highway, directly and indirectly, impacts a population of over 69 lakh. This is the first time in three decades of militancy in Kashmir that the highway has been ordered closed to civilian traffic for two days of the week.
A virtual lockdown
The order translates into a virtual lockdown of the Valley for two days every week. According to official figures, over 10,000 vehicles move on the highway from both sides every hour, including around 5,000 light motor vehicles. These include vehicles carrying students, patients, government officials and businessmen. Shutting the highway during daytime would mean that most government and private offices, banks, schools and colleges would have to remain shut on Wednesdays, and the movement of people to hospitals would be severely restricted on Wednesdays and Sundays.
At least seven important hospitals including three big government hospitals — District Hospital Baramulla, Trauma Hospital, Pattan, and SKIMS Medical College Hospital at Bemina, Srinagar — are located on the national highway.
In addition, at least two colleges, six higher secondary schools, and scores of government and private schools (including the Valley’s top 10 private ones) are on the highway. Almost all colleges, higher secondary institutions and schools in five districts of the Valley are accessible only through this highway. Besides, there are hundreds of villages and towns spread on both sides of the highway from Udhampur to Baramulla. The ban would effectively cut them off from other places on two days every week.
The shutting of the highway means journeys to Srinagar from Anantnag or Awantipora are virtually impossible. To come to Srinagar from Baramulla, commuters will have to travel 20 km to Sopore, and then 60 km towards Srinagar via Sumbal village. Thereafter, a 1-km stretch of the highway cannot be avoided and would have to be covered on foot in the absence of vehicular transport. Srinagar is another 10 km away. In the normal course, the distance from Baramulla to Srinagar on the national highway is only 55 km.