Qazigund, Anantnag: The bittersweet stink of over-ripened apples makes its way from stranded trucks into every vehicle that passes along the Srinagar-Jammu national highway – the only surface link which connects Kashmir with the rest of the country.
“It is the first sign of fruit rot,” Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the president of All Valley Fruit Growers and Dealers Association (AVFGDA), the largest conglomerate of fruit growers and traders in Kashmir, told The Wire.
Since last week when the J&K administration imposed a new set of restrictions to pave the way for “urgent repair works” of the highway in Ramban district, Bashir said that Kashmiri apples and pears worth Rs 100 crore are on the verge of decay after remaining stranded in thousands of trucks on the highway for days.
The highway crisis has triggered a massive uproar in Kashmir where horticulture is the backbone of the economy, generating 13.32 crore man days and over Rs 10,000 crore annual revenue in 2020-21, according to official figures. Political leaders, trade unions and fruit growers have accused the J&K administration of “deliberately holding up” the fruit-laden trucks to make Kashmiris suffer.
The Wire took a trip from Srinagar down the highway to south Kashmir on Monday, September 26. The trail of a seemingly endless stream of trucks comes into sight at Turka Thachloo village in the Anantnag district. It thickens as the journey proceeds, forcing the authorities to shut down stretches of the entire one-way carriageway of the highway in some places to accommodate the burgeoning load of trucks.
The stranded trucks were stretched over 27 kilometres crisscrossing two south Kashmir districts of Kulgam and Anantnag, spaced sparingly at some intersections to allow road access to people living in the localities adjoining the highway. The stream of trucks ends right outside the Qazigund tunnel where two J&K traffic personnel are stationed to man the final checkpoint on the highway in Kashmir before it disappears in the tunnel and re-emerges in the Ramban district of Jammu.
“In the last two days, I have slept for barely three hours. I want to get posted out of this place. It is a nightmare to work here,” said a middle-aged, visibly exhausted, traffic police constable, who was anticipating a phone call from higher officials to allow the stranded trucks to resume their journey.
The stranded trucks have spurred a surge in economic activity along the highway. Dozens of kirana shops and food stalls along the strategic road from Turka Thachloo to Qazigund tunnel are doing brisk business. But with expenses running dry and traders making angry calls, thousands of drivers are spending anxious movements on the highway.
The convoys of security forces move unhindered in and out of the highway, triggering a sense of anger among the stranded truckers.
“In the last three days, I have managed to cover a distance of four kilometres. At this rate, it will take me months to reach Uttar Pradesh,” said Akhlaq Ahmad, a driver from Saharanpur who was among the truckers stranded in the Qazigund area.
Vishal Kumar, another driver from Jammu who was ferrying a truckload of apples to New Delhi’s Azadpur market, said that the restrictions imposed by the government and the mismanagement of traffic has left him stranded for more than 14 days on the highway.
With a salary of Rs 4,000, Vishal hopes to make four trips between Delhi and Srinagar every month. For each successful, to-and-fro trip, he gets a Rs 2,500 tip from the truck owner. “This month I won’t be able to make even two trips. I am losing my wages. The government should do something about it,” he said.
But there is very little that the government can do. The anguish in Kashmir has forced the administration to allow close to 4,000 trucks to cross the Qazigund tunnel on Monday and proceed towards their destinations on the highway which has a carriage capacity of only 3000 trucks till Ramban.
“It is like using a two-inch water pipe to carry a four-inch water supply. The water will only build up at the tail,” said a senior official in the J&K administration.
“Anything above the (highway’s carriage) capacity disturbs the whole cycle of up and down the release of traffic and this may result in piling up of traffic on NH,” an official statement reads.
The Wire tried reaching J&K’s chief secretary A.K. Mehta for his comments. The story will be updated if and when he responds.
According to the J&K administration, “4,000 trucks loaded with fresh, perishable, petroleum products and other requirements of the valley” are stranded in the Jammu region. The administration has also appealed for empty trucks to use Mughal Road for entering Kashmir.
“Call me a pessimist but the crisis will worsen in the coming days. With excess trucks using the highway, the blockade will only pile up because the highway hasn’t got the capacity for two-way traffic. Essentials will be depleted in the Valley and very soon there may be no trucks to transport the fruit out of Kashmir,” the official quoted above said.
The J&K administration spokesperson said that apple production in Kashmir has gone up from 19,81,610 metric tonnes to 2,12,3047 metric tonnes this year “due to abundant rainfall”. The spokesperson said that 3,995 trucks were allowed to cross the Qazigund tunnel on Sunday and another 4,000 trucks proceeded to their destination on Monday.
But by the time the stranded trucks arrive in fruit markets across the country, the weather is likely to have taken a toll on the highly-perishable apples and pears which are stacked in the back of trucks under thick tarpaulin sheets.
“The bulk arrival of fruit in markets also lowers the demand. It brings down the retail prices and also affects the growers directly,” said Ghulam Rasool, a fruit trader from central Kashmir’s Budgam.
Despite concerns of the traffic police, sources said the J&K administration steamrolled the plan to close the highway for four hours in the morning last week to pave the way for expansion works along the 44-km Banihal-Ramban stretch which has been worst hit by rock slides and shooting stones.
The expansion work has rendered the mountainous stretch of the highway unstable, forcing the authorities to allow only one-way, intermittent movement of vehicles. “With the expansion process going on, debris continues to fall from the mountains which increases the closure time of the highway. This will only increase the number of stranded vehicles in coming days,” sources said.
While the government’s restrictions ended on Tuesday, September 27, the highway will continue to remain open for only one-way traffic, which is likely to cause further blockades in the coming days. “The road is not good and there are many difficulties. At present, about 1,500-2,000 trucks are leaving fruit markets in Kashmir, but the number will grow to more than 3000 by October,” Bashir said.
The AVFGDA president said that the quality of the fruit will be affected badly if the trucks transporting them to markets across the country continue to remain stranded in Kashmir for days.
“The rates are already down and low quality will turn away customers from our fruits. In the long run, customers will think twice before purchasing our fruits which will destroy Kashmir’s horticulture economy,” he said.
Over Rs 100 crore worth of Kashmiri apples and pears are on the verge of decay after trucks have caught in a traffic gridlock of 27 kilometres and beyond, forcing drivers to spend days on end on the highway without essentials.