Every other day this summer, hundreds of men marched down Residency Road in the heart of Kashmir’s capital, their fists clenched, raising angry slogans.
That sight is a cliché in Kashmir, where angst has run deep. But the men were not part of a separatist rally – they were temporary teachers, demanding their jobs be made permanent.
Twenty years after the insurgency began in Kashmir, uncomfortable questions of governance are being raised by citizens – and many are asking where much of the central government aid disappeared and why authorities did not do their job over the past years in many areas despite reducing levels of violence. Work is on in many sectors, but nearly every development-related work seems to suffer from the same disease: a task begun rarely gets completed.
Some 16 kilometres from Srinagar in Dangerpora village, the 215 students at the government-run Boys Middle School – which also teaches girls, incidentally – are victims of that disease every day. The school, from kindergarten to Class VIII, has nine classes, but only four classrooms -- and no wall.
So classes are conducted in the open where students sit gulping the plumes of dust constantly thrown into their faces by the busy traffic, with their studies interrupted by the blaring of horns and the noise of heavy traffic from the highway. And when it rains, those who do not have classrooms simply go home.
The school could have taken twice the number of students it has, but it keeps refusing all applicants because it has no place.
Riffat, who studies in the fifth standard, is excited when Hindustan Times journalists reach the school. She assumes it is government officials who have come to ease the school’s problems. She struggles to get up from her mat to greet the visitors – she is unwell. She is pale and has been running a fever for two days.
"It happens to other students on an almost regular basis. They catch throat infection," said Syed Nissar Hussain, the mathematics teacher. Not just that, there are five teachers in the school but one of them is nearly always down with fever, leaving the school running with four.
And when the students are asked what they want most at the school, they respond in a loud chorus: "Deewar! (boundary wall)”
“It is killing us," another student, Yasmeena said of school life by the road, which leads to Bandipore town.
"We are helpless," said Fahmida Akhtar, the school headmistress. "We have
spoken to every one, but no one listens. Nothing happens."
Some distance away, a two-kilometre tarred road has been recently laid, connecting the main road with Cheewa village. Local legislator Mohammed Akbar Lone, also the deputy speaker of the state, dedicated the road to the people at a ceremony on June 3.
Carpet seller Hajji Mohammad Munnawar, 59, has seen a black-topped road for the first time in his life time.
"It is a great thing to happen to our village," he said. "It is a boon."
But others are not smiling as they point to a point 200 metres down the road. Officials forgot to build a culvert on a local nullah.
"What is the use of this road? Once there are floods, the whole road would disappear in two months' time," says Farooq Khan, a walnut merchant.
Farther down, the simple act of crossing a road has turned into a luxury for the residents of the Bandipore area in the past. Some 19 years ago, militants burned down the wooden bridge over the Arin Nullah here. It was the first bridge to be burnt in Kashmir, signalling the onset of militancy.
"We suffered in silence. There was no question of protest, because any protest against the militants' actions would have meant betraying the cause,” said Irshad Hussain, a resident of the area. "The people waded through the waters of the nullah, risking their lives at times, but they would not say anything,"
By 1996, militants had bombed or burned down 738 school buildings and 522 bridges.
For the authorities, it was dangerous during the militancy to start work on repairing the bridge, and other such destroyed infrastructure. But there were no attempts to do so even long after the bombings ended,
So people in Bandipore opt for diversions – because whenever they tried to build a makeshift bridge in the past, it would get washed away during the floods.
But two decades on, when militant violence is fading out in Kashmir, there is still no bridge. That makes life difficult for farmers, as they cannot reach their fields on either side of the stream, especially during night, when they have to guard their crop.
Whether it was weddings or funerals, the number of people participating depended on the behaviour of the stream. The residents got used to it for years – but recent protests by civilians finally forced the government to begin building a concrete bridge over the Arin River.
But the piers are taking too long to come up, and people wonder whether it can be completed by its deadline of June 2009.
"The work on this bridge was started in January this year and the whole underground work has been completed and the pillars are coming up fast," claimed Jugal Kishore, the minister for works. "We will try to complete it before June 2009 for we know that the people are facing lot of difficulties."
Authorities have few excuses now to not perform. In a state where people until recently did not pay income tax or electricity bills, the government is collecting taxes and punishing tax defaulters.
But with most infrastructure projects way behind deadline, most Kashmiris have come to terms with the half-stories of development. Over the past decade, little has been done to erase the black spots of the turmoil – burnt bridges, school buildings, colleges and other government buildings.
“If you ask me, there is no government,” said Shazia Ganai, whose only preoccupation is to scan newspapers and look for jobs, five years after she completed her post graduation. “It is only show of cutting ribbons and nothing else.”