The day after a suicide car bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a paramilitary bus in Pulwama of Jammu & Kashmir, killing 40 CRPF personnel, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that civilian traffic would be restricted during the movement of convoys of security forces.
“Civilian traffic movement will be restricted for some time during movement of Army and security forces convoys. This may cause inconvenience and I apologise for this but this is necessary for safety of jawans,” Singh said after chairing a high-level security review meet.
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A look at the importance of the highway as the only road link between Jammu and Kashmir, and the implications of such a move to restrict civilian traffic — for five hours — during movement of security forces’ convoys.
How the highway runs
The Jammu-Srinagar-Uri national highway runs 370 km. The length includes 175 km in the Valley, from Qazigund in South Kashmir to Uri North Kashmir, and it is this stretch that is considered to be facing a security threat. The highway passes through Anantnag, Pulwama, Srinagar and Baramulla. An 85.4-km stretch from Qazigund to Narbal, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar city, is a four-lane double road for two-way traffic, 30 feet wide on each side. The stretch from Narbal to Uri, running 90.2km, is a double-lane single road just 30 feet wide. Traffic from both sides plies on this road.
At Zainakote in Srinagar, a separate road branches out towards Leh. Again a double-lane single road, this runs 112 km to Zojilla.
At most places, the highway is surrounded by villages and residential colonies. Subsidiary roads connect to these villages.
Civilian traffic & convoys
Every day, at least four security convoys move on the highway, two from Jammu to Kashmir and two the other way. Movement of convoys increases during summer, when the road to Ladakh and border areas of the Valley like Gurez and Tangdhar is thrown open. The convoys move only by day because of security concerns around night movement. If movement of civilian traffic were to be halted during convoy movement, it would mean closing each stretch, southern and northern, for at least five hours.
According to official figures, over 9,500 vehicles including around 5,000 LMVs move on both sides on the highway every hour. “It is slightly easier to restrict civilian traffic during convoy movements on the southern stretch. We can secure one lane for convoy movement and let civilian traffic from both sides use the other lane. But on the stretch from Narbal to Uri, vehicles from both sides use the same 30-foot-wide road,” said a senior traffic official. He described the challenge: “If we stop traffic at Baramulla or Narbal for only one hour, it means that over 5,000 vehicles would pile up from each side. It would take us several hours to clear the jam. Also, it would also be very difficult to stop vehicles coming out of different residential areas along the highway.”
It is not just convoys; security vehicles move on both stretches throughout the day.
Is there an alternative?
If security forces were to consider airlifting their personnel from Jammu to Kashmir, it would save travel time — from 10 hours to 30 minutes — but would be very costly. Even if that were to happen, the security personnel would still be needed to be sent in convoys from Srinagar to South Kashmir or North Kashmir.
Another alternative route is the railway. Currently the service is an eight-coach train that connects Banihal in Jammu to Baramulla in Kashmir. A train route would not only reduce travel time from over five hours to two-and-a-half hours, but also be safer according to experts. The challenge is that security forces would have to maintain very tight vigil against any possible sabotage attempts, which could result in higher costs. Officials say the railway line is secured by the Railway Protection Force, while CRPF and Army personnel can possibly be deployed as Road Opening Party and Convoy Protection Force to secure the line for travel of security personnel.
According to officials, 22 companies of CRPF and about as many Army personnel guard the Jammu-Srinagar-Baramulla highway during the day.