The slight figure of a young woman, clutching an ailing child to her, moves steadily through the twisted paths and treacherous footholds carved in the sheer rock faces of the towering snow-covered mountains. She knows that the slightest mistake can cost a life, but Zahida Bi has embarked on this foot-journey from her village Murrah, located in the Peer Panjal range in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, to reach a government hospital at Bufliaz in Surankote Tehsil, about 16 km away, to get her child treated. It will be dusk by the time she reaches the base, so she will take refuge at a relative’s place for the night. After the visit to the hospital in the morning, she will have to undertake this arduous journey again.
“In the absence of a primary health center in our far-off village, we are completely dependent on the basic health care services available in Surankote or Poonch. Even to board a passenger vehicle, we have to walk continuously for over six hours as there are no roads, virtually disconnecting us from the rest of the world,” rues Zahida Bi.
The border district of Poonch in the Jammu region has only 120 health facilities catering to 189 panchayats. The numbers may seem adequate for the scanty population they cover collectively, but the poor quality of service at these centers is further marred by their distance from the people who reside in villages in the remote interiors.
According to the 2011 Census, Poonch has a population of about 476,820, over 90 per cent of which resides in villages. Villages like Murrah are tucked away in the higher reaches and remain cut off during the winters due to the absence of roads. On the other hand, there are at least 16 road projects, conceived under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), on which work has been abandoned half way for various reasons. In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj categorised Poonch as one of the country's 250 most backward districts. It is one of the three districts in Jammu and Kashmir currently receiving funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme.
The intense geographical challenges, coupled with the conspicuous absence of basic amenities, public infrastructure and administrative inertia, throw up tales of extreme hardship faced by villagers every day. Poverty is the primary issue in such villages where militants once ruled the roost and did not allow any development work. Though militancy has decreased considerably, the villagers are yet to taste the fruits of economic development.
Children are the worst-affected. Besides arranging for firewood and fodder from the nearby forests, they have to ferry eatables and dry rations to their homes as the area does not have an outlet of the Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution (CAPD) Department. Their problems are further compounded during the rains and flash floods.
Haji Mohammad Aslam, Sarpanch of Murrah, says, “We paid heavy human costs during the years of militancy. Though peace has been restored, the promises of development in this backward village are yet to be fulfilled. A large majority of village youth are doing menial jobs in big cities simply because there are no employment opportunities in Poonch. The government has even failed to provide us basic amenities like safe drinking water.”
“Without a road, the government cannot begin or accelerate developmental work here,” opines Ghulam Din, a local resident, adding that between Kalaali and Murrah, two concrete pillars meant for a bridge stand tall at Laadian. The construction work was reportedly suspended halfway due to unknown reasons. “In the absence of the bridge, many people, especially children, have lost their lives in flash floods,” he says and regrets, “We have made many representations to the Roads and Buildings Department but to no avail. The bridge needs to be spanned immediately. It will ensure supply of all essentials to our villages through mules round the year.”
According to villagers, agriculture and livestock are their mainstay but the concerned departments are doing precious little to help them in these sectors.
When these issues were brought to the notice of the then District Deputy Commissioner, Ajeet Kumar Sahu, he said, “The area remained out of development focus due to militancy and geographical challenges. I have recently sent a proposal to the government listing the issues of this particular village among the top ten development issues being faced by the district.”