There are holes on the road, and Pakistani artillery shells don’t even pulverise the ground here any more.
We are in the faraway border town of Uri, 100 kilometres west of Srinagar and 20 kilometres from the Line of Control, the former passageway for thousands of Pakistan-based militants, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been in a peaceful stand-off for years.
The battle now is against poor governance in Kashmir’s high-security border areas, often ignored by political parties and deprived of schools, jobs and any signpost of progress in a state that has purportedly spent at least Rs 50,000 crores of taxpayer money on development over the last two decades of insurgency.
Despite the sloth here on the western fringes of the state, where anti-India sentiment runs deep, it is easy for politicians to take people’s support for granted. After all, a record 82 per cent voted in the state elections last December.
But young jobless men sit in the town market all day, doing nothing. Roads are pockmarked with huge puddles of dirty water.
“Even the drinking water we get is muddy at times,” says Zeba Begum, a 52-year-old housewife.
Three hydro projects have been set up here and the area supplies power to India’s northern grid, residents get only five to six hours of electricity a day.
It is a story that resonates across India’s 15,000-kilometre border that straddles seven countries.
They are strategically important, so governments build roads for soldiers to get there — but often little else.
“Road connectivity in the area has gone up from 2 per cent to 80 per cent. I have spent Rs 200 crore for development in this area in the past five years,” says Taj Mohi-ud-din, Public Health Engineering minister and MLA of the area.
There is little to show for it, though.
“Once we finish college, we sit at home or roam around in the market,” says 21-year-old Zubair Ahmed. The most coveted job: As salesmen in Uri’s small shops.
Asif Habib, a 23-year-old student, found a job in a call centre in Delhi, but could not cope with city life and returned.
“But there is nothing to do here. The government does not provide jobs and there is no scope for private companies. So I decided to study some more,” says Habib, who is now pursuing a Master of Arts course at Kashmir University.
The biggest problem, however, is unemployment. Locals claim about 60 per cent of Uri’s youth are jobless.
Officials don’t even know how many people are jobless in the state.
A 1996 court ruling said it would not be mandatory for the unemployed to register themselves, so the figures do not represent the actual scenario, says Sarmad Hafiz, joint director at the employment exchange.
For instance, the official estimate for unemployment in Srinagar city is 16,000 as of January 2009, but according to a survey carried out by the Department of Statistics, Planning and Evaluation, the figure was 3.06 lakh in 2007 and could have risen to up to 5 lakh by 2009.
“When it comes to employment, I am helpless. This is a national-level problem,” says Mohi-ud-din, the state minister.
Still, Uri’s residents live on in hope — and will line up again at voting booths in April when voting is held for parliamentary elections.
“Voting is my right,” says Habib. “How else will we get electricity, water, roads?”