By: Jyoti Kamal
A road that puts the fear of the Lord in your hearts. Brings about mad panic attacks when you don’t know what you can possibly do to save yourself from plunging several hundred feet off an edgeless road into the abyss below. A road that makes you want to walk rather than sit helplessly in a vehicle. A road in the northern Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh that makes you think of disc brakes and studded tyres. A road built by Jharkhand, an Indian state far removed and far poorer.
There are thousands from Jharkhand, men, women and families huddled under dangerous rock shelters, sitting it out when a storm of rocks slides over their head and down into the raging Satluj and Spiti rivers, these are the people who connect India’s remote Northern Frontiers. They are the road builders who make it possible for the curious to gape in awe at the stark barrenness of a land that has just four colours – brown of the mountains towering all around, white of the snow capping their peaks, an azure blue sky with not a cloud in sight and the grey black of the road snaking aside mountains a few hundred feet above the rivers at the foot of the valleys. Green? Forget the color. It doesn’t exist here.
Welcome to the Hindustan Tibet Road that connects Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh with the rest of the country. It’s the road down which Kinnauri apples make their way to India’s teeming plains and their bustling markets. It is the road on which military convoys move to border posts and frontier military stations like Pooh, Powari, and Kaurik which in themselves look strange perched on mountain sides in layers one atop the other.
It’s a road that was a pony trail on which the special short breed of Kinnauri horses used to wind their way up to the Tibetan plateau and back down to Shimla carrying salt, other rock minerals and traditional stuff from the highlands. And it is a road that the locals don’t want to build. They are happy with the money that their annual apple crop gets them. They are happy with the excruciatingly slow pace of their lives. I envy them for that, but then maybe I don’t when I think again.
And that is where Jharkhand pitches in. I ask little Divya’s mother why has she come to this desolate barrenness to make a living. She is black with soot. Her clothes have turned grimy with the oily smoke emanating from coal tar drums boiling on roadside fires. She is one amongst a ‘gang’ in road parlance working on the stretch between Sumdo and Hurling in Spiti. She says just three words … `kaam key liye’ – to work. Divya is hiding her face in her mother’s clothes and peeking at me and flashing a bright smile and then quickly hiding again. An army officer stops by and tells me to tell the front passenger of our vehicle to keep his eyes peeled for stones rolling down mountain tops which could either ruin the vehicle, kill the people inside or just plain simple roll down the mountain along with the vehicle. I look at the ‘gang’ standing shelterless, blank expressions on their blackened faces and from them I look up at the looming mountain with piles of boulders perched precariously and I think of gallantry awards. Why are they only given to those who lay down their lives in a spur of the moment decision, which I wont hesitate to say, even I could take. But these are people who show courage, every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every month and every year. And to be able to sustain courage over time is true gallantry, not just to show a mere flash of fearless ness. And there are hundreds who have died. Nameless, faceless road builders from Jharkhand, too poor to be written about, to poor to be cared about. Crushed under boulders, dead with their trucks on the bottom of crevasses, dead frozen in snow, dead in floods in the mighty Satluj, dead as bridges crashed. Yet they are there today. Still building the roads. They go on and on. They are here to earn money, some say. But so am I. But there is a difference between them and us. Fine, I have had better luck for now. But their bad luck perhaps makes us luckier on these roads. And thank you, road builders, for that.
The ‘gang’ members are paid Rs 2,925 ($ 75 per month!) per head. And they have to make do with that. Clothes, no more than one set needed. There is no water to bathe, or wash clothes, and if there is, it is freezing cold, no energy to do so, anyway, after the back breaking work of the day and no need to do so, for the black soot cannot be washed off and a new set will be black by the end of the next day. And then I spot two children sleeping under rags on a rock by the roadside and a wave of sadness envelops me when I think of my own child back home. I try and do everything for him and so must these two children’s poor parents. They have carefully put them on a rock to soak up the heat of the sun and they have put them in rags that are cleaner – not black, and they are wearing tiny worn out shoes and their fingernails are clipped and there is a rag to wipe their runny noses. I talk to a guy who has a strange adolescent voice, it suddenly becomes hoarse and then suddenly turns sqeaky and I smile at his face and he smiles back understanding why I am smiling. He says this is the place to save money, for there is no place to spend money here. No markets, no liquor vends, no nothing. Work, earn, eat, sleep, talk, work, earn….and that is why in two or three years they manage to save 60 to 75 thousand rupees. And I realize perhaps my savings account does not have that kind of money. I don’t save.
And for these frontier road builders, what else does the nation do? What do we do? For we are the nation. When one of them is injured even fatally no army helicopter lifts off to bring them to medical facilities. Even where there are many of them working, a Rs 5,000 (US $ 125) walkie talkie is something they can not get or imagine. A lakh-and-a-half is paid off to the family of anyone who dies and that’s it. Maybe their memories live on, on these roads, in the silence of the valleys with the whistle of the wind. Thank you Jharkhand for connecting Himachal. For building India.