The fragile peace in India's disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir was broken yesterday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators protesting against electricity power shortages, killing a 25-year old man and injuring two others.
Anger has been spreading across the mountainous region, where temperatures have dropped to near freezing, since unusually heavy power cuts were imposed last month. Yesterday's demonstration was outside a power project at Uri near Boniyar, 90kms from the state's summer capital of Srinagar.
Members of the Central Industrial Security Force opened fire when a group of about 500 protesters marched towards the project's main gate. This is a central government force hired by the National Hydro Power Corporation and has little experience of handling the delicate situation in Kashmir, where there have been demands for some form of autonomy from India for over 60 years.
B R Sharma, the state's home secretary, said five CISF personnel, including a sub-inspector, had been arrested. "The incident could have been avoided if CISF men had co-ordination with state police," he said.
Street riots escalated in 2008, culminating in more than 100 civilians being killed in 2010. That cycle of violence was broken last summer, partly because Kashmir police and paramilitary forces were retrained to curb their previously heavy-handed tactics when dealing with usually young, stone-throwing rioters. But there is now a risk that the protests could be used by leaders of Kashmir's autonomy movement, and opposition political parties, to revive street demonstrations.
Last week police used tear and pepper gas to clear protesters who had burnt tyres and blocked a highway linking Srinagar to the winter capital of Jammu at Ganderbal, the constituency of Omar Abdullah, the state's chief minister. A government Power Development Department building was attacked in Srinagar. Demonstrations were also reported from districts across Kashmir and these are now expected to spread following yesterday's killing.
Under the new electricity schedule, power cuts of 72 to 96 hours a week have been imposed in many areas where usage is not metered, and 24 hours where new digital meters have been installed. However, residents are complaining that the cuts have been more extensive than the schedules – in some cases lasting for 15 hours – and that they are far more severe than in previous years.
Last Thursday, Mr Abdullah blamed the shortages partly on the sort of extensive theft of electricity that is widespread across India. "People should realise that by indulging in such acts they are making life miserable for others," he said. He responded to criticisms of the government from Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a leading Muslim cleric who heads a pro-autonomy party, by asking him to "issue a fatwa against those who indulge in power theft".
Power distribution losses due to the poor network account for more than 58 per cent of the state's power generation, which amounts to only 758 megawatts compared with peak demand of more than 2,100 megawatts. During winters, local hydro power generation drops to around 300 megawatts because of reduced discharge from rivers and this winter the situation is more serious because of unusually dry weather.
Rising tensions: timeline
April 2011: More than 3,000 officers are trained in non-lethal methods of crowd control, including the use of water cannon and tear gas.
February 2011: A key highway is blocked by protesters over the death of a 21-year-old man at the hands of the army.
July 2010 The imposition of a curfew is followed by days of violent clashes that leave at least 25 protesters dead and dozens injured.
June 2010: Thousands march through Srinagar after a 17-year-old student was killed in the crossfire between protesters and police.