ON November 5, the Met office in Srinagar issued a warning: “An active western disturbance and its interaction with cyclone MAHA is mostly likely to cause widespread moderate to heavy snowfall and (rain in plains of Jammu, Kashmir) in Ladakh during 6th to 8th November… Low temperatures and heavy snowfall submitted for the information of general public.”
But with the Valley yet to recover from the lockdown that came with the August 5 revocation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir, with pre-paid phones and Internet connection still to be restored, the warning went largely unnoticed.
On the morning of November 7, Srinagar and the rest of Kashmir woke up to a blanket of snow that brought the day’s temperature to a maximum of 6 degrees Celsius. Trees, which had given way under the weight of the snow on their canopies, lay uprooted across the Valley, power lines caved in and air transport was halted for two days. While electricity in Srinagar was restored after five days, large parts of the Valley continue to be plunged in darkness, nine days after the season’s first snow.
On November 16, the J&K administration moved former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti from a Chashmi Shahi hut, where she has been under arrest since August 4-5, to a government quarter in Srinagar. Her daughter Iltija Mufti said she had been moved out because the hut where she was kept “was not fully equipped for Kashmir winters”.
With the Valley still snowed under, the new Union Territory administration, having moved to Jammu in the last week of October as part of the annual Darbar Move, was largely missing in action. The annual pruning of tree branches was mostly not done and the snow machines were missing from the roads.
Despite repeated calls, Divisional Commissioner Basheer Khan was unavailable for comment.
A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, said the snowfall was unusually heavy this time and that the administration did its best to ensure the advisory reached people. He also said the government acted swiftly to ensure the roads were cleared after the snowfall.
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Every year, taking its cue from the apple harvest season, Kashmir begins to prepare for the four-month-long winter — stocking up essentials, pruning trees, preparing charcoal and covering water pipes with foam and clothes to prevent them from freezing. But this year, even before the chinar trees had started to shed their ripe, golden leaves, the lowlands of the Valley had witnessed the first snowfall of the season, sudden and heavy. From around two-and-a-half feet of snow in south Kashmir’s Shopian to around 10 inches in most parts of north Kashmir on November 7, this was among the Valley’s heaviest snowfall spells for the month.
The unexpected winter took everyone by surprise: from the homemaker who hadn’t brought out her kangri (the fire-pot tucked under pherans whose glowing charcoal embers keep Kashmiris warm during its bitingly cold winters), to the apple farmer who hadn’t pruned his trees.
35 per cent of apple trees in Valley damaged due to snow
The apple farmers, Baramulla
“If it snows again, I will be finished,” says Irshad Ahmad Bhat, shifting his gaze between the apple trees in his two-and-a-half-acre orchard and the skies. It is cloudy and the J&K Met office has predicted another spell of snow — the second in the first fortnight of November.
Under the heavy snowfall this year, most of the apple trees in Bhat’s orchard, at Goshabugh village in Baramulla, have been damaged — some of them have been uprooted, some split down the middle, some have had their branches ripped off.
“It took us more than 30 years to raise this orchard. See what one spell of snowfall has done,” he says, standing beside a tree whose trunk stands cleaved. “The soil is moist, the trees are weak and the leaves are still on the branches. These trees won’t stand any more snowfall,” he adds.
Kashmir’s apple industry, a major contributor to the region’s economy, is the biggest casualty of this year’s untimely snowfall. The snow, which came on the back of a dismal season marked by militant threats, government intervention and low market prices, has dealt the industry another blow. Official figures reveal that more than a third of the Valley’s fruit trees have been damaged in the snowfall.
The Valley accounts for around 75 per cent of India’s total apple production, making it a Rs 8,000-crore industry. Kashmir produces more than 18 lakh metric tonnes of apples, grown across 3.62 lakh acres and supporting a population of more than 40 lakh people.
“According to our preliminary loss assessment, 35 per cent of orchards have been damaged due to the unseasonal snow,” says Horticulture Director Ajaz Ahmad Bhat. The damage has been particularly severe in Kupwara, Baramulla and Kulgam districts.
Every year after the harvest season, fruit growers prune tree branches to reduce the surface area of the tree so that it doesn’t give way under the weight of snow. But this year, with farmers delaying the harvest after militants warned them against plucking the fruits, the trees were not pruned. Pruning, which usually lasts until the end of December, is a specialised skill, with labourers in high demand immediately after the harvest season.
With Internet still down, Bhat says he missed the J-K Met department’s snowfall advisory. Even if he had, he says, he probably wouldn’t have been able to save his trees since they weren’t pruned. Blaming the government for the loss, he says, “They
didn’t do enough to make sure the weather advisory reached people.”
Other orchardists such as Shahnawaz Ahmad, who owns three acres of an apple orchard in Shopian, says he acted fast to limit the damage from the sudden snow. “As the snow started to accumulate, we went into the orchard and shook the tree branches to remove the snow. That helped save many of my trees,” he says.
Recently, the Horticulture Department released ads on radio, informing growers on how to hasten the shedding of tree leaves so that the trees can be pruned. But the ads came too late: the snow had already damaged most of the trees.
Two-hour night shift in outposts, down from eight hours, due to the cold
Soldiers at crpf camp in sumbhal, bandipora
“Everyone sayS Kashmir is heaven…,” says A K Roy, an Assistant Commandant of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at a camp of the 45 Battalion in Sumbhal, Bandipora. Around him lie heaps of snow speckled with dirt, and a steady drizzle picks pace. “Of course, it is heaven,” he continues, “but only from April to October. After October, it is hell.” Roy is originally from Bihar and this is his second posting in the Valley.
To outsiders in the Valley, especially security personnel posted for the first time, Kashmir’s long winter months can be harsh. Having brought in additional troops this summer, the government has made elaborate arrangements for them, including arranging one lakh thermal inner wear, more than 60,000 jackets, sleeping bags and blankets. The government has also constructed 70 insulated prefab barracks and issued 1,500 kerosene heaters to the troops.
But nothing prepared a young personnel from Manipur to the sight he woke up to one night. “It was around 3 am. It was snowing. I was ecstatic. I had never seen snow before in my life,” says the soldier, who came to Kashmir four months ago. “It was a bit cold and I wore my gamcha (scarf) and went out to see the snow. But as the morning drew closer, I started to tremble. The joy of seeing snow for the first time was over. There was no electricity at the camp and there was no way to escape the cold — only a kerosene stove,” he adds.
The kerosene stove is what sees paramilitary personnel through the Valley’s winter months. More than a hundred kerosene stoves have been issued to the Sumbal camp, that has anywhere between 200 and 250 CRPF men. But the personnel say the stoves, though essential, are not enough when temperatures drop to sub-zero levels.
As the Valley’s farmers prepare for their harvest, it is the first sign for the CRPF to begin their winter preparations, starting with servicing and repairing of the kerosene stoves.
“We start preparing for winter in the last week of September. We get all the heaters from the store, get them serviced and repaired, if needed. We also make an assessment of how many new ones we need and purchase them,” says Assistant Commandant Kailash Chandra, a resident of Rajasthan who looks after the administration at the camp. An icy cold draft blows through his room, small and dark and without electricity for the last eight days.
The CRPF stores are well stocked with winter essentials such as snow boots, winter uniform and thermal wear, but the camp commander has little say in deciding when to requisition them. “That decision is taken at the top, by senior officials in the Valley. A cold assessment is done and they decide when to provide what to the personnel,” says Chandra. “We get regular instructions. The snow boots, thermals etc are issued almost simultaneously throughout the Valley. Similarly, we also get specific instructions on when to issue the heaters and the stoves,” he adds.
The stove has its limitations, though — they are not allowed inside the mobile vehicle bunkers and they are almost useless in the camp outposts or the sand bunkers in the open. “We are not allowed kerosene heaters inside the bunker vehicles because there is the risk of suffocation. But sometimes we manage to sneak one inside, and ensure there is some ventilation. How else can we survive this cold?” says a CRPF personnel from Odisha recently posted in Srinagar.
142 hours of power blackout in north Kashmir
The Bashirs, Sopore, Baramulla
On the night of November 6, Madeeha Bashir, 18, was preparing for her Biology exam when the lights went out. A routine disruption, she thought, and switched on the power back-up at her home in Chinkipora in Sopore, south Kashmir. By morning, the power back-up packed up too. On November 9, the district administration announced that it would take five more days to restore lines.
So for the next few days until her Biology exam on November 14, Madeeha studied by the candlelight. “I also had to cut down on study hours. I usually study for more than 14 hours during exam season. But I could barely study for six hours,” she says.
“In north Kashmir, we had a problem because transmission towers fell at five or six places. It takes around a month and a half to erect a new tower,” says Chief Engineer, Power Development Department, Qazi Hashmat. “But we have temporarily restored power by criss-crossing the lines onto other towers. It is a temporary arrangement. The permanent arrangement will take some time.”
Every year, the change of season brings with it a quintessentially Kashmiri ritual — families start to store essentials such as rice, pulses, dried vegetables, wood, gas cylinders and kerosene, besides getting the kangris and charcoal ready to tackle the freezing cold. This squirrelling away is essential as supplies to the Valley are often halted by landslides on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway.
While Srinagar sources a lot of its supplies from Jammu and other parts of the country — fuel, gas cylinders, vegetables, rice and fruits — rural areas, which are largely self-sufficient, have an even elaborate winter preparedness plan.
In July, when the vegetable output is in surplus, villagers sun-dry tomatoes, gourds, brinjals etc to store for the winter months.
By the beginning of November, trees are pruned and the twigs are half-burnt into charcoal, a winter essential. Families also stock up on wood.
Over the years, while Kashmir’s traditional mud houses, with their small windows, made way for concrete homes, many of the new homes retain the ‘hamam’, a room with floor made of a locally sourced stone. Every morning, wood is burnt below this stone flooring, helping the room stay warm.
The Bashirs don’t have a hamam, but they have their own ways to beat the cold. This time though the family was caught unawares. “We usually start preparing for winter after November 15. We didn’t expect so much of snow so early,” says Zainab Bashir, Madeeha’s mother.
30-35 per cent of saffron crop damaged
Saffron farmers, Pampore
The sudden drizzle on the evening of November 6 left Ghulam Mohammad Pampori with a knot in his stomach. He was planning to harvest his saffron crop the following morning — the third and final major picking of the golden spice — and he was hoping to finish the job before any showers, which usually end up tearing the delicate stamens of the saffron flowers.
As he woke up in the morning, his worst fears had come true: a thick blanket of snow covered his two-and-a-half-acre saffron field, burying the small flowers and with it the hopes of saffron growers.
Over the last around two decades, the saffron fields of Pampore have rarely had reasons to cheer — incessant rain or long dry spells have reduced saffron production, from around 30,000 kg in the 1990s to a meagre 6,000 kg last year. This year, going by the first two phases of harvest, farmers had hoped for a turnaround. But that ended with the sudden snowfall of November 7.
“We have never seen so much snow this early in the season,” says the 70-year-old Pampori. “There have been instances of early snowfall before, but the snow was never more than two to three inches. This time, there was at least 16 inches of snow in my field.”
The harvest season for saffron usually lasts a month — from mid-October to mid-November — and the harvest is done in phases. Spread across 8,000 acres, the saffron fields of Pampore produce on an average more than 3,000 kg of saffron every year.
Pampore’s saffron farmers say that this season, in the absence of the Internet, the government’s snow alert never reached them. “But even if we had got the alerts, I don’t think we could have done anything,” says Adil Majeed, who grows saffron on his one-and-a-half-acre farm. “That’s because you need to wait for the flowers to bloom properly before the stamens are plucked. And the flowers were not in full bloom,” he adds.
The snow is only the latest adversity to hit the saffron growers, who are already distressed over the import of Iranian saffron. “Jammu and Kashmir produces only 8,000 kg a year while Iranian saffron is imported in tonnes. How can we compete with that even though their quality is no match?” says Pampori. “We were already broken, the snow has now covered us like a shroud.”
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