By Riyaz Bhat
SRINAGAR: As the winter season dawns in Kashmir, shivers begin to go down the spines of scores of the officials manning the vital mechanical engineering department (MED), the agency that manages the roads during the inclement weather. Among these officials, the snowplow drivers are the most sought after who risk their lives to keep the normal life going in the Valley.
The drivers say they remain on high alert for four months of the year-from November 15 to March 15.
“For the past fortnight, we are in continuous action day in and day out. Sometimes the road clearing job gets so hectic that we spend 20 hours on the snowplow machines,” Sameer Ahmad, a 40-year-old machine driver said.
“Ours is the toughest job. It becomes most difficult when snow clearing job is done in subzero temperature. Only we know what happens when the whole body starts to shiver,” he said.
Another machine driver Maqbool Ahmad, 44, complained that people do not appreciate their effort and turn their back when they require some help. “We feel that common people do not consider us as human beings.”
“I can never forget that dark scary night when I was clearing snow from Gulmarg road and my machine developed a technical snag in the dead of night. It was terribly cold and I begged door to door for help, revealing my identity and job, but nobody came out to aid me,” he said.
“I returned helplessly and realised for the first time that while serving the people why do we foget that we are ourselves human beings and require some basic things,” he said.
Ahmad said that the fellow workmen of the department including the labourers and the higher officials work together as a team to assist and encourage the daring drivers.
“We live like a family and whenever we need any help from our higher officials they remain at our beck and call,” said another snowplow driver Khurshid Ahmad.
He said that besides the permanent employees of the department, hundreds of casual workers have worked hard to keep the roads open during the inclement weather. “Several casual labourers sacrificed their life,” he said.
He mentioned the case of 50-year-old casual driver Mohammad Rafiq, a resident of south Kashmir’s Damhal Hanjipora area, who was a casual labourer for 10 years. “In 2014, Rafiq was clearing snow from the roads of Damhal Hanjipora in late hours. The snowplow machine fell into a deep gorge and caused his death,” he said.
“Rafiq did not receive a single penny from the government as compensation. We have pleaded his case before the department but to no avail,” Sameer Ahmad, who is also president of the driver’s union, said.
“We collected some money for the deceased driver’s family but it is too meager to help them,” he said.
Chief engineer of MED Kashmir Rajneesh Bal said that the officers and the government dod not leave the drivers and staff at the mercy of inclement weather. “We have built control room in every respective area where the drivers can take shelter and live comfortably,” he said.
He informed that the department owns as many as 129 snowplow machines in Kashmir division and two labourers are attached with each machine. He said that 23 machines in are deployed in capital Srinagar, 4 in Ganderbal, 6 in Pulwama, 18 in Anantnag, 8 in Shopian, 11 in Baramulla and 11 exclusive for Tangmarg and Gulmarg, 10 in Kupwara and 6 each in Bandipora and Gurez areas.
However, the casual labourers complain that the department does not take care of them as they deserve. “I have been deployed for the Srinagar’s Budshah area by the concerned authorities as a casual labourer for the past ten years against a paltry salary of Rs 5000. We deserve proper compensation,” Zahoor Ahmad, a casual labourer said adding the chief engineer must forward their case to the concerned higher authorities.