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Roadblocks hold up patients in India-held Kashmir

Updated March 19, 2019


SRINAGAR: Military roadblocks on main highway of India-held Kashmir are delaying ambulances carrying patients and leading to confrontations with motorists that occasionally turn physical, residents and medical staff say, as security forces’ crackdown on Kashmiris protesting Delhi’s rule in the region causes major disruption to daily life.

Tensions in held Kashmir have been elevated since a suicide car bomb attack killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama on Feb 14. Both Pakistan and India launched air strikes last months, forcing world powers to urge calm.

Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours have temporarily eased. But India has kept up pressure on militant groups on its side of the contested border, boosting its military presence there and arresting hundreds of alleged separatists. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops patrol the held valley, and motorists say security around military convoys has increased delays.

Roadblocks on a 100-kilometre stretch of NH-44, held Kashmir’s picturesque main highway linking the summer capital of Srinagar with the rest of India, are sometimes trebling the time it has taken for sick patients to reach hospitals in the capital, several users of the road told Reuters.

India’s military denies this, saying troops are instructed to stop traffic for only a few minutes at a time, and that ambulances and school buses are getting priority.

“School buses, ambulances will be give priority during the convoy movements,” said Indian defence department spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia on Monday.

“We have given directives to the troops on the ground that they are not stopped.” But the Kashmir Private Schools Association sees no difference in the security forces approach, and its chairman G.N. Var said it might have to close down the schools because the disruption was so great. “The school buses were stopped even today,” Var said. “It is harassment. We can’t run schools like this.”

Irfan Ahmad, 45, a resident of Awantipora in south Kashmir, said it took him three hours to take his mother, Sajja Begum, for treatment at a hospital in Srinagar on March 11, a journey that usually takes an hour. “She was crying with chest pain but who listened, there were long queues everywhere we were stopped,” he said.

Mohammad Yusuf, an ambulance driver who frequently ferries critical patients from nearby Qazigund to hospitals in Srinagar, said commuting on the highway had become increasingly difficult. “We are stopped (in) five to six places on the way,” he said. “It takes four hours to take patients from Qazigund to Srinagar and normally it hardly takes 70-80 minutes.”

Waqar Ahmad, a doctor at north Kashmir’s main Baramulla hospital, said he faced similar delays making him late for work shifts. “Every few kilometres we are stopped by troops on the highway,” he said. “They are very aggressive and they don’t listen to us. We feel insecure. Earlier, they would nicely talk to you and now they are abusive. We are stopped in at least five to six places in a 60-kilometre journey. It is a routine now and we feel dejected.”

The hospital’s medical superintendent, Syed Masood, said most of its doctors were now late for work. “It affects the functioning of the hospital which caters to lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of people,” he said.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2019