On Wednesday, the Jammu & Kashmir Home Department issued an order banning the movement of civilian traffic on a 270-km stretch (Udhampur-Baramulla) of the Jammu-Srinagar-Uri national highway for two days every week. On Sundays and Wednesdays, the highway would be exclusively used for movement of military convoys. What are the security concerns that led to temporarily blocking part of the highway? What could it mean for civilians in the Valley?
Why is the highway important?
The Jammu-Srinagar-Uri national highway runs 370 km. The national highway is 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 10 districts of the Valley, and highways to at least two more districts branch out from it. The highway, directly and indirectly, impacts a population of over 69 lakh.
So, what has the government ordered, and why?
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. The twice-a-week ban is on civilian traffic movement on the 270-km stretch from Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in Kashmir. This stretch would be closed for all forms of civilian traffic from dawn to dusk (4 am to 5 pm) on these two days, leaving it open exclusively for convoys of security forces.
While the highway would be closed on these two days, civilian traffic already faces restrictions through the week. Whenever security forces’ vehicles are using the highway, civilian traffic is often halted for various lengths of time. This is the first time, however, that the government has ordered daylong closures every week. In three decades of militancy, even during the early 1990s when militants often targeted convoys with IEDs and car bombs, the highway had been kept open for movement of civilian traffic.
What impact can it have?
It means 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. Had the government decided to move security convoys at night, the impact on civilian traffic movement could have been much less. Closing the highway during daytime would mean that most government and private offices, banks, schools and colleges would 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 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 ten 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.
Is there an alternative to the highway?
An eight-coach train runs between Banihal in Jammu and Baramulla in Kashmir. The five-hour journey on the highway can be made in two-and-a-half hours by train. However, putting security personnel and equipment on a train would have special requirements and call for extra security measures.
The railway line is secured by the Railway Protection Force, while CRPF and Army personnel are deployed in road opening parties and as a convoy protection force on the highway, officials said. They added that 22 companies of CRPF and almost an equal strength of Army personnel guard the highway during the day.