RAZDAN TOP: Snowfall in the mountains’ lower reaches is always a joyous experience. It brings a sense of calm, and the world seems to come to a standstill. But there are men out there with little to protect them against the chill who daily brave nature in all its might. They fall only to get back at their task with rage-filled eyes to conquer what many around them call ‘humanly impossible’.
Amid the breathtaking beauty of Razdan Top, there are at least 200 labourers working this year for the Border Road Organisation (BRO) to connect Gurez with the mainland in winter for the first time in recent history. Last year, the earliest opening of the 80-kilometre road was witnessed in April. The otherwise snow-covered road, which cuts through Razdan Top at 1,2000 feet, would normally witness its opening in summer, well after the six months from December to May. The beauty of the landscape is monstrous too.
Each day, snow-cutter machine operators lead the way, followed by men shovelling the snow in temperatures far below freezing point while chill, snow-filled winds race at speeds of 60-70 kms per second. “It was minus 25 degrees Celsius there earlier today,” a voice from the walky-talky of operation Commanding Officer APS Khaira is heard answering as the wind roars across the Razdan Summit, sweeping snow powder across and reducing visibility as the voices fade away.
A few metres ahead on the freshly cut snow, 40-year-old Abdul Majeed Chachi, mounted on a snow-cutting machine, vigorously kept himself involved in the operation, removing mounds of snow with the machine blades as it kept moving forward. Refusing to turn off the engine, Chachi said, “We are approximately at the Razdan Top, and it’s been two days since we reached here. The temperature is minus 25 degrees, and the weather is playing tough as strong winds double our task. We are able to clear three to four kms in eight hours work but then we have to start from scratch once more as the snow gets accumulated again by strong winds which even hurt our eyes.”
Braving the cold is a herculean task, one not for the weak-hearted for the job demands both mental and physical strength. “On Monday, one of the men literally froze on the machine. He had gone into hypothermic shock and was evacuated to headquarters for treatment,” the officer said, seconded by labourers who had worked alongside the casualty.
History is being made. “It’s for the first time in history that we are attempting to connect Gurez with the mainland in the month of January. We have cleared the Sonarwani to Razdan Top stretch, and from Gurez side, the team has reached to Dahi Nalla. Now we have a 15 km stretch left to clear between Razdan to Zadkhushi, it’s the most difficult stretch as snow accumulation is high and the road is not sun-facing. Also, the weather conditions are very extreme.”
“It’s a two-point attack, with three snow cutters and one wheel cutter from Bandipora side and two snow cutters and one wheel cutter from another side. The clearance is done in such a way that roads aren’t damaged. The cutters leave some inches of snow intact which is manually shovelled away by labourers,” the officer informed, adding, “The men on the machines and the labourers with shovels are my actual heroes, for without them, this all is impossible.”
At these heights, there is not only the brutal cold and extreme winds to brave but also the persistent threat of snow avalanches. According to the junior engineer on the site, on Monday when the team reached Peer-Baba, four kms before Razdan Top, the men had to deal with 11 snow avalanches. “The mode of communication is walkie-talkies, and it’s with this that we are able to pass information about roadblocks due to avalanches and send machines for its clearance. Though the labourers work for eight hours, often times they reach back to the station by 11 at night due to roadblocks.”
The men shovelling snow appear every few hundred metres on the road stretch. Muneer Ahmad Gujjar, 30, from Pethkoot village, who works along with Habibullah Hajam, 45, as manual snow cleaners, holding shovels near Tragbal, has one thing to say. “It’s a herculean task, and the weather is very intense. It’s Chillai Kalan now, so you can yourself imagine the situation we work in. We are here every day clearing snow in whatever situation,” he said, his face glowing red with cold.
To keep them going in this extreme weather condition, the men regularly working with the organisation for snow clearance are given a special ration of dry fruits, which includes cashews and almonds, the officer said.
Bouts of heavy snowfall started to drape the valley again. The officer said that it was more than double of what is being witnessed in the plains. “Let the spell end; the men will be ready to return to the task,” he said.