By Siddique Ahmad Siddiqui Poonch, Sept. 2 : Bound by the Actual Line of Control (ALC) on three sides, Poonch district, referred to as mini Kashmir is probably one the smallest in terms of area in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and also one of the most remote.
Interestingly, despite its sparse and rugged terrain, there are pockets that are closely inhabited. Marhot village in Surankote, one of the four tehsils tucked away in the region, has a sizable population of 15,000.
Yet the lack of visible infrastructure, indeed basic services is apparent. School infrastructure as well as basic road and transport facilities that are crucial for children to reach school is sadly wanting.
Marhot divided into upper and lower regions governed by different panchayats - has only one high school, catering to both boys and girls.
According to the sarpanch of upper Marhot, Hadim Khwaja Hussain, "We have asked the government repeatedly to establish a high school only for girls, but there has been no action." It is indeed heartening that on an average there are between 100 to 150 girls studying in Standard XI and X.
What is unfortunate, however, is that all of them do not clear their high school in the first instance.
The boys also have a tough time clearing their exams at this level, but invariably their parents are ready to support them for a repeat year in the same standard.
The parents of girls are, however, not ready to wait. The priority for them at this point is to give their daughter away in marriage. Societal pressure does not allow the girls the luxury of having a second shot at clearing this significant stage in their schooling.
Even girls, who do manage to clear this, have a long haul ahead. For Marhot does not have a Higher Secondary School. There is one located 15 km away in Surankote city that caters to both boys and girls. Another school exclusively for girls is even further. The impediment, however, is not so much the distance, but the sorry condition of the roads and the abysmal lack of safe and reliable transport.
There are only two matador vehicles that have a fair carrying capacity - plying between Surankote and Marhot.
In any case, the road is such that it cannot take too many vehicles at one time. Their movement necessarily needs to be staggered. This means that the students routinely end up late for class simply because they are in a vehicle that has to wait its turn.
Apart from the bigger vehicles, there are a number of smaller vehicles that are then packed like sardines.
They move forward in a painstaking fashion, weighed down by humanity that finds a perch at any available angle or space.
For school-going children and teens, it is a nightmarish experience, but they have no choice but to grit their teeth and bear.
For girls especially, the experience can be harrowing. It sadly comes to a point that either the girls refuse to take the transport or else their parents simply pull them out of school.
They find the risk too much to take. The local leadership, including the sarpanch and village elders do not let an opportunity slip to bring the situation to the notice of the authorities.
But it does not seem to be a developmental priority nor does there seem to be any immediate political mileage in taking up the cause.
And so the girls in Marhot languish. It is interesting that Surankote is a constituency for the Vidhan Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir.
It plays a decisive role in electing a representative to the assembly and should thus follow that it has both political clout as well as a voice that can directly be heard at the highest policy-making and legislative body in the state.
According to the Charkha Development Communication Network, it is indeed ironical that Marhot and in all likelihood, several other smaller villages in Surankote continue to groan under an archaic transport system and a dilapidated road network.
While all citizens in the area require this basic infrastructure, simply to access services and address their core requirements, for the young, the price is too high.
In particular, girls in this border region are forced to forgo the opportunity to get an education and realize their potential.
Surely, the collective political will and the administrative resources in the region can ensure that girls get to school and back -safe.
Given this, they are sure to chart out their own futures. [The views expressed in this article are personal].