Cold Facts: Heavy snowfall cuts off far-flung villages in Kashmir; demand for snow clearance under MGNREGA gains force

Damaged roads, heavy snowfall and bitter cold keep rural people cut off from essential services in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, while authorities struggle unsuccessfully to clear snow with earth movers. Can MGNREGA offer a solution?

Raja Muzaffar Bhat
| Updated: January 13th, 2021

Photo: Zubair Fayaz/Twitter

Budgam, J&K

Tabassum’s journey to the hospital for her delivery was nerve wracking. From her home in village Kutbal Marg in Budgam, in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), she was carried on a charpoy by four male relatives for two kilometres (kms) to Bonen village 40 kms south of the capital, Srinagar. Heavy snowfall had buried the roads and in some places, nearly four feet of snow were yet to be cleared. 

At Bonen, Tabassum, whose labour pains had begun, struggled on to a JCB and travelled on it towards Chadoora town, some 15 kms away. Meanwhile, the Sub District Hospital in Chadoora had been alerted and an ambulance with a doctor, paramedics and some ASHA workers set off towards Bonen.

“Our ambulance got stuck on the way at Dadompora village six kilometres short of Bonen. It took us an hour to find the bulldozer carrying Tabassum,” Manzoor Ahmed, the doctor who travelled in the ambulance, recounted to Gaon Connection. When they located the JCB with Tabassum, they quickly shifted her into the ambulance and drove off towards the hospital. 

However, the nightmare for the pregnant woman continued as they got stuck in a traffic jam due to the bad roads and snowfall, and just a couple of kilometres short of the hospital, Tabassum’s daughter was born right there in the ambulance. “Both the mother and the baby are doing well now,” the doctor informed Gaon Connection.  

The young mother was put through so much trauma and discomfort in that trip from home to the hospital, only because of the despicable condition of the roads, buried in snow and not cleared for days on end.  

And this is the misery of tens of thousand villagers in the Kashmir Valley who have been cut off due to heavy snowfall in the region and a lack of timely snow clearance. 

Photo: @MayorofS/Twitter

Local people have been demanding undertaking snow clearance works under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act, 2005) so that the snow is cleared faster and villagers also earn an income. There aren’t enough snow clearing machines in the Valley and often JCBs are pressed into service, which are also no good.

JCBs are pressed into service instead of snow-clearing machines for the simple reason that there aren’t enough of the latter to serve all the villages. “We have 12 snow-clearing machines in Budgam district that have to work hundreds of kilometres of roads,” Irfan ul Islam, assistant executive engineer, mechanical engineering department, Budgam, told Gaon Connection

“We do all the work ourselves, and due to shortage of snow-machines, there is delay in clearing the roads of snow fall,” he said. There is a lone executive engineer who looks after the division comprising the three districts of  Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal.

Recently on January 8, when a JCB was sent to clear snow in Repora village in Chadoora, the local villagers intervened and sent it back. They preferred to clear the snow with spades instead. 

Local people demand undertaking snow clearance works under the MGNREGA so that the snow is cleared faster and villagers also earn an income. Photo: By arrangement

“We asked the contractor to stop the JCB work and instead got six or seven local residents to clear the snow, which they did in just a few hours,” Shahnawaz Sultan, a resident of Repora, and a RTI activist, told Gaon Connection.

“I wish these works were taken up under MGNREGA instead,” Mushtaq Ahmad, a resident of Bonen village, told Gaon Connection. That, said Mushtaq, would have served a dual purpose: the local people would have earned some money at a time livelihoods were hard to come by; the road surface would not have been damaged by heavy machines.

According to him, just last summer, crores of rupees were spent on repairing, relaying and constructing retaining walls on the nine kilometres stretch from Bonyar village in Budgam District to Goggee Pathri road via Kutabl. “It was blacktopped for the first time and the villagers living in the area rejoiced,” he said. But their elation was short lived.  

After just five months the road came undone as heavy JCBs rolled in to clear the snow and in the process gouged out the surface of the bitumen road.  

Road damaged by a JCB. Photo: By arrangement

Could MGNREGA solve the problem?

While the mechanical engineering department takes up snow clearance works on the major roads of the district, the Roads and Buildings Department hires contractors who use JCB’s or agricultural tractors for snow clearance. They are in charge of clearing village roads and link roads that they have constructed. 

In addition, the roads constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojna are taken care of by contractors for five years. This is called the Defect Liability Period and slow clearance work is also to be undertaken by them. Contractors use JCBs to clear the snow and, sometimes, the mechanical engineering department also pitches in on the more important roads of the district.

There aren’t enough snow clearing machines in the Valley and often JCBs are pressed into service. Photo: @MayorofS/Twitter

Why couldn’t the authorities use the MGNREGA funds for snow clearance work? Many of the people in the remote parts of J&K are asking why this can’t be done. 

“In my view, this would be a good way to use MGNREGA, even if it would require amending extant rules,” Wajahat Habibullah a retired IAS officer and former chief information commissioner who has served as secretary panchayati raj government of India, told Gaon Connection

But, according to Qazi Sarwa, director, rural development, Kashmir, such works are not permitted under the central Act. This was reiterated by Sheetal Nanda, secretary, rural development and panchayati raj, Jammu and Kashmir: “The Government of India does not allow snow clearance work to be undertaken under MGNREGA.”   

The blame does not lie entirely with the Union government alone,  said Mohammad Ramzan Khan, a social activist from Bandipora district in North Kashmir.

“I was told that no formal proposal on snow clearance work under MGNREGA from the J&K government went to the Union ministry of rural development and panchayati raj,” said Khan. “There are places in Gurez sub division in Bandipora which remain cut off from Srinagar for six months. Using MGNREGA funds for snow clearance work would have been of great help to the tribal inhabitants of the area to earn a livelihood during the lean winter months,” he pointed out. 

Putting  MGNREGA to work

On an average each district in J&K gets Rs 25-30 crores under the MGNREGA annually. In addition to this a 40 per cent material cost is added to this annual budget. 

Budgam district has 13 lakh registered MGNREGA job card holders and the workers under the scheme earn Rs 204 per day, making Budgam district’s annual MGNREGA budget more than Rs 26 crores annually plus 40 per cent material cost adding up to nearly Rs 35 crores annually.

According to social activists, if the government allows the snow clearance work to come under the MGNREGA scheme, it will not have to pay for any material cost as the work will be a hundred per cent labour-based activity. In fact, they say, that the government can save material cost from the snow clearance work and the same can be utilised for other works that need more material components.   

Photo: @MayorofS/Twiter

Snow clearance in Kinnaur under MGNREGA

It is not like snow clearance under MGNREGA activities has never been done before. This central Act was used for snow clearance work as far back as 2011-12, in Kinnaur, Uttarakhand. 

Keeping in mind the heavy snowfall and the many labourers with no jobs in the cold winter months, the district administration of Kinnaur had asked the Uttarakhand government if the job of clearing snow could be undertaken by MGNREGA. The department of rural development, government of Uttarakhand, consented, saying road construction and clearing of debris came under essential activity and therefore clearing the snow from roads could be undertaken under the scheme. 

Jammu and Kashmir experiences a much heavier snowfall than Uttrakhand does, yet not a single snow clearance activity has been undertaken under this scheme. Former rural development minister Abdul Haq Khan had held a few meetings with the Union rural development minister three years ago, but till date snow clearance under MGNREGA has not been given a green signal.

Tabassum’s story had a happy ending. But the hardship and uncertainty continues for thousands of people who reside in the remote, rural parts of J&K. During the recent snowfall, dozens of medical emergencies had to be shifted to hospitals on charpoys, stretchers, tractors or JCBs as most of the roads were blocked in snowdrifts. People have to often carry the ailing as no JCBs can reach their villages, through knee-deep snow and treacherous pathways. Can the government use the MGNREGA funds for snow clearance and provide some relief to the Kashmiri people in the harsh and hostile winter months?

Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Budgam-based independent journalist and social activist.