Written by Hibah Bhat
“Abh yahan ane ka dil nahi karta (I don’t feel like coming here anymore),” he says as he arrives at the Srinagar’s fruit mandi, ten days after he left Jalandhar with a truckload of tomatoes for the Valley. For five years, Kumar, a truck driver from Samba in Jammu, drove to the Valley with fruits and vegetables. But this could be his last trip.
Restrictions on the movement of civilian traffic on Udhampur-Srinagar National Highway, coupled with frequent landslides, is triggering anger in the Valley, especially among the truckers. A 270-km journey that they used to cover in two to three days now takes more than a week. And this is not just a waste of time, but also harmful for the condition of the stock, which rot on the way.
At Srinagar’s fruit and vegetable Mandi, Abdul Rehman is anxious. His driver had called him in the middle of the night. “Sahab, Aage nahi chodh rahe hai, raat yahi guzaarni padegi (Sir, they are not allowing me to move forward. I will have to spend the night here),” Rehman quotes his driver as saying.
Since the highway ban, Rehman has been receiving many such calls at odd hours of night from the truck drivers stuck on Srinagar-Udhampur highway. After the militant attack in Pulwama this February, J&K government banned civilian traffic on the highway to just two days a week —Wednesday and Sunday. Though the ban on Wednesdays has been revoked, the restrictions have not just hit the state economy but also the truck drivers from outside the state.
When Kumar, 32, loaded his truck at Jalandhar, he didn’t wait for a minute. He knew he has to be in Srinagar in next two days as tomatoes are highly perishable. In fact, he didn’t make a halt till Jammu —a 220 km from where he started.
“I reached Jammu in just five hours. It was already growing dark but I didn’t stop,” he says. “It took me another two hours to reach Udhampur.”
As he drove close, Kumar could see the flickering of backlights of trucks. There were hundreds of them, stuck in front of his, all stopped because of the highway ban. What he thought to be a temporary halt lasted for two days.
“We have no option but to stay in our trucks on the roadside,” he says. “But even that becomes a problem at some point of time. We can’t just park our trucks anywhere. It creates hindrances for the local people and they ask us to vacate.”
After spending two nights on the roadside at Udhampur, Kumar and his fellow truckers were allowed to move ahead. After driving for an hour, they were again stopped at Chenani and asked to take de-tour via Patnitop. India’s longest road tunnel was constructed at Chenani to bye-pass Patnitop, a high mountainous pass thus reducing the journey by 30 km and more than two hours.
As Kumar talks about de-tour, one of his fellow trucker interjects. “Few days back, police at Chenani broke the windshields of several trucks,” he says. “They blamed us for blocking the road and asked us to take a u-turn.”
As Kumar negotiated the tough terrain of Patnitop, he was asked to stop again – this time at Batote. “Yaha se aagey nahi ja sakte (You can’t go any further from here), thundered a policeman,” he says.
The halt at Batote was for another two days. At Batote, every passing hour perturbed him. “I was no longer at peace,” he says. “I was getting regular calls from the vendor. He was worried. I understood his concern. My truck was loaded with tomatoes worth rupees three to four lakhs. I knew if I don’t reach well in time, all this will rot.”
The fruit and vegetable dealers in Srinagar say they have no problem with the highway ban order but only want that the movement of civilian traffic to be organised. “We are not against the ban. The government might have valid security reasons for the same,” says Bashir Ahmad, an executive member of New J&K Fruit Association. “All we want is a proper implementation of the order in all aspects.”
The truckers say that they are not only stopped on Sundays —when the highway is closed for civilian traffic. “Every time there is movement of (security) convoys, we are asked to stop,” says another truck driver. “The unnecessary halts delay our journey. Also on most of the days, traffic is allowed only on one side of the highway and there are frequent landslides disrupting the movement.”
The delay in transporting food from outside Kashmir results in a shortage of supply and a consequent rise in prices.
“The ban has led to a loss of approximately Rs 500 crore to us,” says Bashir Ahmad Bashir, President of the Fruit Association.
Before the ban, Kumar says he would make five to ten trips on the Jammu-Srinagar stretch a month. “Now I can hardly make two to three trips,” he says. “If I truck from Delhi to other states, I would earn less than what I used to earn here before. But at least, I would be able to pay my debts. Less profit is always better than loss.”