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Caged in the Mountains, Thousands Demand a way out in North Kashmir's Karnah

Anees Zargar |
The snowfall in the mountains of North Kashmir cuts off thousands of residents from the Valley plains.

Srinagar: The residents of Karnah, a small valley in North Kashmir's Kupwara district, live in isolation during the unrestrained winter season. The cold winds become colder in fear as helpless villagers feel caged in the giant mountain walls around them.

The snowfall in the mountains of North Kashmir cuts off thousands of residents from the Valley plains. Those who live in far-flung areas like Karnah remain at the mercy of nature with limited access to health or emergency care.

Earlier last week, hundreds of locals marched in the Karnah town – once a bustling trade route before the 1947 partition ended its glory – raising slogans against the administration for failing to meet their key demand of all-weather connectivity. They carried placards and banners demanding the construction of the Sadhna Tunnel. The all-weather route is among the only two long pending demands of the people in Karnah, a majority of whom are Paharis and seeking an ST (Scheduled Tribes) status.

At an altitude of about 10,020 feet, Sadhna Top is a mountain pass that divides Karnah from the rest of the valley. During the winter, it receives between 10-15 feet of snow – making it a high avalanche risk zone – severing the only route National Highway 701, for any commute or transportation.

sadhna protest

"There are only promises, and successive governments have duped us. I do not understand why constructing an all-weather route to this area is so difficult," a protester said.

The protesters demanded that the authorities build a tunnel or open the Teetwal-Muzaffarabad- Uri Corridor. The Teetwal – about 160 km from Srinagar – is the last village in Karnah through which the Line of Control (LoC) runs dividing the erstwhile Muzaffarabad Wazarat of which Karnah was once a part.

Social activist Raja Waqar says there is no end to the problems people face in the area, surrounded by the border on three sides.

"The problem is not the summers, but as soon as the winter arrives, even if it rains slightly, the pass is shut, creating huge inconvenience for residents, especially those who fall ill or have health issues," Waqar says.

The only means is a chopper service, sometimes provided by the administration and often by the Indian Army or the Border Security Forces (BSF).

"But it can only aid one or two persons at a time and depends on the weather conditions. If the weather is too erratic, then the choppers don't help either," Waqar told NewsClick.

The Indian Army, on January 15, assisted the civil administration in evacuating a pregnant lady in critical condition. It was a day after Nusrat Begum, a resident of Chitrakoot, had developed complications in the local hospital but could not be evacuated due to bad weather conditions.

"The threat to the lives of the mother and unborn child could not be mitigated due to limited medical facilities available," a statement from the Army read.

According to the locals, there is also a shortage of medical specialists in the region because they do not prefer to work here and often resign from service, fearing long blockades.

"Due to this, we suffer huge losses in terms of lives and the economy," the activist adds.

The locals claim there have been more than 200 deaths in the past years due to the accidents on the treacherous pass, which often becomes impossible for movement.

In 2019, Ishfaq was travelling with a relative on the highway when he met an accident near what is locally called Khooni Nala or bloody ravine, close to the pass.

"My relative travelling with me died in the accident, and I underwent five surgeries before recovering. It is a death road where so many people I know have died, and there is no respite for the dead, too," Ishfaq laments.

The last week's protests were held because at least three bodies of the locals were unable to reach their respective villages for last rites. They had to wait in a mortuary before the road could be cleared for transport.

"If someone, who has moved to Srinagar or anywhere outside Karnah, dies, he has to wait for days before he could be laid to rest. That is how bad it is for both the living and the dead," Ishfaq says.

Waqar says that the locals have to "beg" every time before the administration for essential services, and there is always a delay.

"We feel like prisoners," he says.

Residents said they were promised the Sadhna tunnel and were more hopeful since 2009. A detailed project report (DPR) of the tunnel has been prepared in the last few years, but there is no word from the administration on its status.

An administrative official in the area told NewsClick that the process is ongoing as the ministry has already invited tenders for the work.

In 2021, however, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ravinder Raina said that work on the 6.5 km long tunnel would begin soon with an expense of Rs 1300 crore for the construction. The amount was earmarked by the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, who claimed at the time that the detailed DPR would be ready by March 2022.

Since the work was not seen through, it made the residents sceptic.

"Unless the work begins, we will not believe any government or administrative official. There is no reason that the administration provides why the tunnel is not being built or an alternative is created," Waqar says.

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