Imtiyaz Ahmad was busy de-icing the path to his house when his neighbour Bashir Ahmad Chechi knocked on his door in the wee hours asking for help.
“Chechi was anxious,” recalls Ahmad as his wife Gulshan Begum was in “deep labour pain”.
Begum was in the third trimester of her pregnancy and needed to be shifted to a maternity hospital immediately.
“But the road was blocked due to snowfall and it was impossible for any vehicle to reach here,” says Ahmad.
Chechi lives in Pannar, a remote village in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. The village is around 12 kilometres from the district hospital.
“But since the road is hilly, the ambulance couldn't reach here,” Ahmad told Moneycontrol.
As Begum was writhing in pain, Chechi, Ahmad and other neighbours decided to carry Begum on cot to the hospital.
A local Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, Bibi Akthar, accompanied Begum. Around six men were carrying the cot on their shoulders amid heavy snowfall.
“After a few kilometres, Begum’s cries grew louder. We put the cot on the road and told the ASHA worker to check and Begum delivered the baby,” Ahmad said.
“Fortunately both the baby and the mother are safe but you can imagine—a woman delivering a child on a road amid snowfall, that too without any facilities,” he said.
Ahmad added that if the ASHA worker wasn’t with her, anything might have happened.
“I managed to do it (delivery) on the road, I have experience, but it was very difficult. We took her back home then,” Bibi Akthar said.
The incident has left Begum traumatised. She doesn’t speak to anyone and spends most of the time inside her room with the baby.
Snow brings miseries
This was not the only case where a pregnant woman got stuck due to snowfall, with the Valley witnessing at least four similar incidents. However, many were lucky to reach the hospital on time.
Early on January 8, Haseena Begum, wife of Abdul Jabar Malik, went into labour. Malik lives in Budnamal village of North Kashmir’s frontier district of Kupwara.
“The snow was around three feet deep. No vehicle was plying so without wasting any time, we wrapped my wife up and decided to carry her in a makeshift cot,” Malik told Moneycontrol.
He said it wasn’t possible without the help of villagers, who helped them reach a local hospital.
“We reached a place called Babyi Top from where we ferried her to Chowkibal on a horse. We managed to get a taxi from Chowkibal to the sub-district hospital Kralpora, Kupwara, where she is admitted right now,” Malik said.
The fresh snowfall has proven to be quite a challenge for people living in rural and border areas, particularly expecting women in Kashmir, with claims of “good health infrastructure” falling flat with roads to important facilities cut off.
I thought she would die
The distance between Budnamal village and Kralpora is around 25 kilometres. The villagers have to walk for around 5 km from Chowkibal to Budnamal during the snowfall because of no road connectivity, the locals said.
Before shifting her to the hospital, Malik knocked on the door of a health sub-centre at his village but the doctors weren’t available, he claimed.
“While ferrying her on horseback, I thought she would die. I was crying but thanks to Allah we managed to reach the hospital,” Malik, a labourer, told Moneycontrol.
JCB to the rescue
At 3.45 am on January 5, JCB driver Aarif Hussain Sheikh got an unusual call from his contractor Javaid Ahmad that a pregnant lady needed to be shifted to a hospital urgently.
“I started the JCB amid the heavy snowfall,” recalls Sheikh, who lives in Gorinad, Verinag area of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
Sheikh had to reach Trajan village in Verinag, where the woman, also in her last trimester, was living with her family—around 5 km. The distance between her home and the hospital is around 20 km.
“I reached there, picked up the family in the JCB and drove towards the hospital,” Sheikh said. On reaching the hospital at Qamar village, the lady was shifted to Medical Health Centre, Anantnag.
Sheikh said although the road towards the Trajan village is good, it is hilly and the snow remains there for months. “Till April, no vehicle will reach there. It was impossible for the family to shift the patient to the hospital,” Sheikh said.
Can be dangerous for women
Kashmir remains mostly cut off from the rest of the world during winters as the snowfall leads to the closure of the Srinagar-Jammu National highway—the only road that connects Kashmir with the rest of the country.
Air traffic also remains disrupted due to poor visibility. The locals said that the lax attitude of the administration towards de-icing of roads and poor health infrastructure in rural areas is taking a heavy toll on them, especially women.
Doctors in Kashmir maintain that carrying a pregnant woman on a cot for several kilometres can prove dangerous.
“The mother and the baby get exposed to cold when you carry her on a cot in the minus-zero temperature, it’s dangerous for both,” Dr. Riffat, a gynaecologist, told Moneycontrol.
The health advisories
Kashmir directorate of health services spokesperson Mir Mushtaq however argues that they have advised the people living in hilly and remote villages to shift patients to areas where hospitals are easily accessible. “You need to understand that in natural calamities, you have to manage with available infrastructure but unfortunately many people don’t listen despite advisories,” Dr Mushtaq said.
He said that they are in remote villages that have their ASHA workers who communicate with people regarding the health advisories from time to time, and asserted that “our healthcare is the best one in the country”.
Rashid Ahmad Dar, chief engineer, mechanical engineering department, which is responsible for keeping roads clear, told Moneycontrol that over 95 percent of the snow has been cleared from the roads and they attended to all the distress calls.
“We prefer to clear the priority first roads—which include roads leading to hospitals, highways and other important institutions. Then we clear priority second roads which include inter- district roads, etc,” he said. Dar said that the department has successfully cleared snow from 8,663 km of roads this snowfall.
Dar, however, added that people living in remote areas have to carry their patients on cots in fair weather as well due to a lack of full road connectivity.
Govt’s road policy
A government official told Moneycontrol that the administration constituted a standing committee last year to decide on allocating funds for maintenance of different categories of roads in Jammu and Kashmir. The committee, according to him, has been constituted as part of implementation of the Jammu and Kashmir Road Maintenance Policy, 2021.
In a statement, the government said, “The committee will also explore avenues for mobilizing additional funds for reducing the gap between the funds required and those made available for maintenance of the roads.”