The leaves of the chinar trees were still green, signalling winter was yet to arrive. The chinar trees normally signal winter and snow when its leaves turn yellow and start falling. The people, and the administration, were thus totally unprepared for any unseasonal weather vagaries. But on November 5th, the weatherman in Srinagar issued an alert—possibility of heavy rain and widespread snow on November 7th across the region. The prediction was right on the nose.
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As the clock struck 9 am on November 7th, the crisp morning air was covered with thick snowflakes and within just two hours, Srinagar witnessed waterlogging, traffic snarls, and extreme slippery conditions making it difficult for the commuters to drive on city roads. In Srinagar district alone, at least 20 minor accidents took place on November 7th. And as the intensity of snowfall increased all over the valley, reports of causalities started coming in.
It was only the second time in a decade that Kashmir received heavy snowfall in November. Last year, it was November 3rd when Kashmir was enveloped with a thick cover of snow. The early snowfall this year resulted in the death of nine people including a woman besides causing damage to property including its traditional fruit crop. The damage to the state’s horticulture sector is estimated to run into crores of rupees.
As soon as the snow was cleared from the roads by the district administration, people across the valley, Srinagar in particular, immediately started preparing for the cold season ahead, which usually starts in the first week of December but has arrived early this year. The first thing people did was to store essentials.
“We kept charcoal in our stores and filled LPG cylinders with gas and purchased a dozen kangris (fire-pots),” said Nasir Azam, a resident of Chattabal area in old Srinagar. “We started wearing pherans (traditional woollen gowns) to brave the cold”. For every Kashmiri, pheran is the best bet to stay warm during winter months. Pheran and Kangris have been the traditional combination to stay warm during winter.
“Means to fight snow vagaries have changed but one thing that has continued for centuries is our traditional fire-pot popularly known as Kangri,” said Zareef Ahmed Zareed, Kashmir’s famous poet. “Without the Kangri, one can’t stay warm in the bone chilling cold in Kashmir during winter especially in Chila-e-Kalan (the 40-day harsh winter period—December 21 to January 21)”. But the Kangri has its disadvantages. According to doctors, excessive use of Kangris can lead to skin cancer. In every Kashmiri’s every home, there are at least four to five Kangris filled with charcoal that last throughout the day and keep the person warm.
Even as the weatherman predicted more snow in the coming days, there were reports of civilian deaths due to the snow on November 7th from various districts.
Closure of the highway
The other problems confronting residents were the complete power breakdown across the entire valley, shortage of drinking water, and non-availability of essentials like LPG gas, vegetables and other essential food items. Compounding the unforeseen problems was the closure of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway—the only surface link connecting Kashmir with the rest of the world. The 270-km highway witnessed landslides at multiple points forcing traffic authorities to close the road. The highway remained closed even six days after the snowfall topped at 10 pm on November 7th.
This crucial highway is a fair weather road and is prone to landslides. Rain for just a few hours can lead to closure given the topography of the road that had been carved out of a mountain range by the then Maharaja in 1900. In 2017, with the help of foreign experts, a 9.2-kilometre tunnel was constructed from Chenani to Nashri that reduced the distance from Jammu to Srinagar by 30 km, reducing journey the time from over six hours to around five hours. After hectic efforts of the Highway Authority of India (HAI) and the J&K traffic department, the highway was opened for vehicular traffic on November 13th only to see it closed again on November 14th due to the rainfall that again triggered landslides at multiple points.
“This highway is dangerous in winters one and is fit only for the summer months,” said a senior traffic cop deployed at Ramban point on the highway. He said the highway witnesses at least 20,000 vehicles on an average every day and the priority is always given to trucks laden with essential commodities like LPG, kerosene, petrol, poultry, sheep, vegetables etc.
Even though Srinagar received close to just five inches of snow, all the major roads were seen water logged—due to the poor drainage system. The city’s residents have been protesting for some time now demanding a modern drainage system, but not much was done by any of the successive regimes. Srinagar continues to be the victim of water-logging whenever it gets a few hours of rain. Its drainage system is totally inadequate to withstand heavy snowfall. The waterlogging, especially in the city’s central Lal Chowk area, turned the roads into a ‘cesspool’ as drainage overflowed onto the roads.
Officials, however, claim that Srinagar being bowl shaped, the drains overflow quickly. “Claims by previous regimes about repairing the city’s drainage system are all false,” said Siraj Ahmed, who owns a hotel at Lal Chowk. “It is always a flood-like situation in Lal Chowk, which is the nerve centre of Srinagar, whenever there is day-long rain or snowfall.” People from many other parts of Srinagar also complained of overflowing drains in the lanes and by-lanes of their areas.
A senior official at the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) said that due to the heavy floods of September 2014, Srinagar’s drains got choked due to the silt that came along with the muddy water. “The silt couldn’t be removed as we didn’t get a proper response to the tenders issued in this regard. Due to the silt accumulation in Srinagar drains, the carrying capacity has become very less,” he said.
The Commissioner of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) Khurshid Sanai however said that tenders have been issued and the desilting of drains in the city will start shortly. “We are serious about it,” he said, while admitting that waterlogging is likely to continue in low-lying areas.
Srinagar is used to extreme weather conditions, but the loss of power, which happens within seconds of any snowfall, makes life even more difficult. On the morning of November 7th, the divisional administration in Kashmir ordered cutting power to minimize losses to the power infrastructure from the falling snow.
The Power Development Department (PDD) bears the brunt whenever there is heavy snowfall. This time, it was no different. According to the Chief Engineer Power Development Department Hashmat Qazi, the power infrastructure in Kashmir suffered losses of over Rs 100 crore due to the snow. As per official figures, 690 transformers were damaged of which 267 were in Srinagar alone. Some 6000 electric poles also fell down due to snowfall across Kashmir. It took PDD two days to restore the electric supply in Srinagar city and four days to restore 95 per cent power supply in other Kashmir districts.
35 per cent orchards damaged in Kashmir
Director Horticulture Kashmir, Aijaz Ahmed Bhat said that as per tentative estimates, the November 7 snowfall has damaged 35 per cent of orchards across Kashmir. “In rural Srinagar, 22 per cent orchards have suffered damage,” said Bhat. “We have sent teams to each district and the final loss figure is being collected district wise which would take some time”.
Iqbal Mir, an apple grower from South Kashmir’s Shopian district said that the snowfall wreaked havoc as it not only damaged the fruit crop that includes various varieties of apple but the fruit trees itself. “For us a fruit tree be it apple, papaya or almond, takes 10 to 15 years to grow and to produce quality fruits. This time, in our orchard, trees fell because of the snow accumulation on branches”. South Kashmir received one to two feet snow on November 7.
Given the threat of more such unseasonal weather conditions and the administration rushing to cope with their meagre resources, winter tourism has taken a back seat. Director of Tourism Kashmir Nisar Ahmed Wani said that they offer special packages and organise winter festivals on the eve of Christmas (December 25) and New Year. “Packages for tourists are available at local level everywhere,” said Wani. “Though we witnessed early snowfall, as such we have nothing big to woo tourists at this particular point”.
However, a tourism official said that snow and ice-skating has started earlier this winter at famous Gulmarg. “The number of tourists both, foreign and domestic is much lesser compared to last year due to uncertainty in the wake of rollback of Article 370 and bifurcation of erstwhile State in two Union Territories”.
Late administrative response
The Srinagar administration, headed by deputy commissioner Shahid Iqbal Choudhary and divisional administration headed by divisional commissioner Baseer Ahmed Khan made repeated claims about having removed snow from all major roads by the second day of snowfall in Srinagar and other districts of Kashmir; however, it took five days for the Lieutenant Governor of J&K, Girish Chander Murmu, who is camping in Jammu, to take stock of restoration works, and that too through video conferencing.
An official statement issued in Srinagar by the department of information and public relations on November 12th read: “Through video conferencing divisional commissioner Kashmir Baseer Khan briefed that relief centres, each of which can accommodate 1500 people, have been set up at three places on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway with sufficient stocking of essential commodities”. According to the statement, divisional commissioner also informed the LG that 602 winter dumping stations have been set up in inaccessible areas of Kashmir with all basic necessities in stock for six months and interim arrangements are being made to ensure power supply.
According to the department of consumer affairs and public distribution (CA&PD), a two-month stock of essential supplies that include rice, atta, sugar and kerosene is maintained in Srinagar. “This has been our routine practice for many decades now, and at times we stock up to three months’ supply,” said Muhammad Qasim Ahmed Wani, Director CA&PD Kashmir. Similarly, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) Commissioner Khurshid Sanai said that all the ward officers and supervisors have been kept on alert mode to meet challenges. “De-watering pumps and snow clearance machines have been kept on a stand-by mode and the entire staff is already ready to face any kind of situation.”
Given the changing weather patterns everywhere, Sanai and his staff are likely to be kept very busy this winter.