The Kashmir Knights Watch: men who band together for 3 months to battle snow

The Kashmir Knights Watch: men who band together for 3 months to battle snow

Ten dozen men spend the winter under one roof to perform ‘one of the riskiest jobs in the world’

Srinagar: Every year on November 15, more than 120 men leave their homes and family to spend the winter under one roof, at Parimpora on the outskirts of Srinagar. These men work at the head office of Mechanical Engineering Department (MED), Kashmir Division, and they band together for the winter to make sure that heavy snowfall does not paralyse life in Kashmir.

At the two-storey building at Parimpora, called the snow-clearance control room, preparations are in full swing for the three-month period that the men will spend here. The building has a kitchen, two operations rooms, six toilets, and an office on its ground floor. The first floor has accommodations for the executive engineer, assistant executive engineer and junior engineers, who stay here on rotation basis.

A plumber was repairing a geyser inside the kitchen when this correspondent visited the premises. In one of the operations rooms, a senior snow cleaner was fiddling with his mobile phone while reclining on one among dozens of sleeping bags. “I cannot speak…our president will,” he tersely said.

The junior engineers present in the premises would stay in office till March 15. “The operations begin today,” the senior snow cleaner informed. “Team members are arriving slowly. Once everyone is here, both the (operations) rooms will be occupied. Some 80 snow cleaners, 30 mechanics, three junior engineers, assistant executive engineers, and an executive engineer are part of the team.”

A well-built man, Khurshid Ahmad Kashkari takes review of the maintenance work on snow clearance machines parked inside an iron shed. He says he has been working as an operator for the past 25 years, and has served in both rural and urban areas of the Valley.

Kashkari believes that snow cleaning is one of the riskiest jobs in the world. The first challenge that people like him have to face, he says, is to leave emotions aside. “We are not allowed to go home, unless we get special permission in case of emergency,” he said. “There are chances of being attacked by wild animals during an operation,” he added.

Snow cleaners’ duties are bound within their respective divisions. However, sometimes the head office receives calls from other divisions when there is intense snowfall. The calls the Srinagar-based head office receives are generally from remote areas calling for more machines. “On the orders of our superintendent engineer and executive engineer, our team members leave for those areas to conduct operations,” Kashkari said, adding, “Srinagar is our centre. Wherever we are asked to go, we leave immediately without caring for our lives.”

Several mechanics and snow cleaners call their camping at the headquarters their ‘Aetikaf’, the Muslim ritual of living in a masjid for ten days to meditate and pray during Ramadhan. “No doubt we are paid for our jobs, but we risk everything so that people don’t have to face any difficulties,” Sameer Ahmad Rather, another operator, said.

Rather was appointed in the department in 2005. He is among the youngest men in his team. Since joining the department, he has been taught to lead from the front. “Earlier I was independent, but since I joined this department my life changed drastically. I became responsible; I understood the meaning of life and how to help each other during trouble,” he said.

The snow clearing staff said that during the 90 days of stay at the headquarters, hardly anyone gets sound sleep. To kill time, the men either spend nights playing carom or in prayers.

Rather said that the operators track weather forecasts every hour. On a night of snowfall, Rather says, his officers measure snow depth while mechanics check machines before the operation begins at 3am. “Almost every important route, to hospitals, police stations, TV and radio stations, PHE offices, DC offices, etc, is cleared by 7am across the valley,” Rather said. “What took a couple of days earlier now takes only a few hours.”

“If we sleep during the night before an operation, we won’t be able to do the job properly. To deliver our best performance, we keep ourselves awake,” he said.

Manzoor Ahmad, one among the group of mechanics who are instrumental in the success of snow-clearing operations, said that the most challenging part of his job was to repair snow clearance machines wherever they break down. He said that mechanics rush to the spot where the machines break down, often at night. “Most of the times the blades get damaged,” he said. “We cannot afford to leave machines there… we have to repair them and make them fully functional.”

Mir Abdul Rashid Javaid, Assistant Executive Engineer, MED, told Kashmir Reader that people have misconceptions regarding the clearance of snow on narrow lanes and residential colonies. “It is not our duty; our job is only to clear main roads and we require a road that is at least 13 feet wide,” he said.

Javaid said that to monitor the positions of workers, the department has a wireless communication set-up in case heavy snowfall breaks down telephonic communication.