‘Memories will haunt me forever’: Kashmir’s fatal roads

"It destroyed my mental health. The memories of the accident still haunt me – it will continue to haunt me forever.”

Accident illustration anis wani
Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla

On a pleasant afternoon in July 2015, Mohammad Arif Bhat, then 22, was travelling to his home in Budgam from Srinagar in a Tata Sumo with seven fellow passengers for Eid. He had bought himself a pair of new shoes and back at home, his nephew was upbeat – keenly waiting for toy guns. Ignoring the picturesque road to Budgam, Mr. Bhat was all into his phone – crushing candies in a game.

Sitting in the center of the middle seat with two passengers, Mr. Bhat neither noticed frequent brick kiln chimneys nor the Jamia Masjid or the market in Beerwah area of Budgam.

It was when the vehicle moved past the market and entered a village landscape, Mr. Bhat looked up from his phone only to see a vehicle that was about to collide.

“I don’t exactly remember which vehicle rammed into ours,” recalls Mr. Bhat, panicked and uneasy. “The next thing I saw after that vehicle was the hospital room.”

Mr. Bhat is not comfortable talking about the accident. It has given him sleepless nights and frequent attacks of panic and anxiety. “I don’t want to talk about it. It destroyed my mental health,” he says, breathing heavily. “The memories of the accident still haunt me – it will continue to haunt me forever.”

His accident was one among the 5,836 accidents in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in 2015. The data on the website of traffic police reveal that in the last eight years, on an average, fifteen accidents took place every day in J-K and a person is killed in every seven hours.

Mr. Bhat doesn’t remember how many people died in the accident; his family later told him that only passengers sitting in the middle seat survived and other six died. He was one among the 8,142 people injured in road accidents that year, though he finds himself lucky enough to have not died among the 917 people killed in road accidents the same year.

For Mr. Bhat, it was a miraculous escape; after a couple of months of treatment, he got away with a few stitches and a broken neck.

This month, from 11 to 17 January, Motor Vehicle Department organised thirty-first Road Safety Week – 2020, across Kashmir Valley. The theme of the week was “Sadak Suraksha, Jeevan Raksha” (Road safety, secure life), with an aim to inculcate traffic education and awareness among the populace.

Tahir Geelani, Senior Superintendent of Police (Traffic), Srinagar, said, “Accidents mainly happen due to human errors where drivers are mostly at fault.” He also added that in some cases, it could be the fault of road engineer as well. “Bad roads, or speed-breakers, sometimes lead to accidents too.”

He added that the police was taking action against defaulters and holding awareness campaigns in schools and elsewhere.

Since 2011, more than 10,000 people have died in road accidents in J-K. In 2019, 942 people were killed and 7,007 people were injured in 5,367 road accidents; one among the injured was Afreen Jan. Unlike Mr. Bhat, Ms. Jan, a 27-year-old resident of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, was not fortunate enough to get away from an accident without any deformity or disability.

“It was scary as hell. I thought I would die,” she says.

In June 2019, Ms. Jan got to know that her nephew had fallen from a roof, ten kilometers from her place. To check on him, she hopped onto her brother’s motorcycle as a pillion, and took the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, or National Highway – 44.

On the highway, a speeding truck hit the motorcycle – gravely injuring the brother-sister duo.

“I fell into a gorge and my face was tangled in a concertina wire – due to which a lot I lost a lot of blood,” she recalls.  By-standers took her to a nearby hospital with a heavily bleeding nose and a broken leg.

Recalling the accident, a private school teacher by profession, Jan trembles like Mr. Bhat.

Today, she limps and is not comfortable with her appearance – fearing that the scars will remain for the rest of her life. Pointing towards her nose, she adds, “I look ugly because of my flattened nose and the broken bone in my leg has almost made me disabled.”  

Owing to the contemporary social construct, she expresses her fear of finding a suitable groom. “Who would marry an ugly and limping woman?” she asks. “You know how choosy Kashmiris are when it comes to marriages.”

While Ms. Jan blames lack of properly managed roads and faulty traffic system for her accident, traffic authorities on the contrary blame negligent driving. A traffic official, who does not wish to be named, claimed that “negligence of rules and over-speeding drivers has turned out to be the main cause of traffic accidents across the region.”

The official, however, acknowledged that lesser deployment of traffic police personnel in remote areas, poor condition of roads, and sharp curves on some hilly roads also add to rising numbers of accidents across the region.

While narrating Mr. Bhat takes frequent pauses; whenever he says something, he does so in a flurry as if someone is chasing him. “It was a very traumatic experience,” he says. “It was a part of my bad past. Something which I want to bury in a grave.”

Whether or not the government will bring in changes to minimise the accidents in the newly formed Union Territory is something remains to be seen. However, for Ms. Jan and Mr. Bhat the thoughts of their accident ordeals will continue to haunt them, forever.

Saqib Mugloo is a News Editor at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 27 January – 02 February 2020 print edition.

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