Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kashmir’s undependable “Lifeline”!

With the proposed rail link in a mess and the present road link sinking, the valley is destined to remain a physical prison apart from being a political one!

After having failed to link up Kashmir valley politically with the rest of India, the authorities in Delhi had made the Prime Minister announce the plans for a rail link to Kashmir. Probably, they had thought that a stronger physical link would increase economic integration and lead to political integration. Unfortunately, the plans have gone awry and according to news reports the proposed rail link is doomed to failure. CNN-IBN has brought to light the stinking mess of flawed decisions and cost over-runs of this ongoing project. The report on the channel claims that it has access to official audio-recordings of a key meeting between senior railway officials. It is reported that the very success of the project is in question. Already during construction of tunnels four portals have collapsed. The link is supposed to have the highest bridge in the world but due to the gradient the approaches have to go along the mountain sides which create their own problems. In fact, it has been alleged that the project was started without any proper planning. Main bungling has been at the planning stage itself. Instead of proper contour maps prepared on the ground, satellite imagery was used to fix the alignment. There was no proper investigation of the strata. In the meeting it is alleged that one of the members said that they will not have the courage to go back to the Prime Minister and say that the whole project has proved to be a flop show and it may have to be abandoned! Abandoning the project will be damaging internationally not only for the country but for the Indian Railways itself. There had been some talk about changing almost 75% of the alignment. It would have almost halved the cost. But the move was scuttled by senior railway officials for some unknown reasons. There seems to be an attempt to cover up the failures. It is given out that the project would be completed by 2015. Keeping in view the bungling, it is doubtful whether the project would ever be completed. It may carry on till 2050 like the Jammu-Udhampur link which took over 30 years to complete. The railway track within the valley too is a joke. A single track with couple of trains in a day. Presently, these too remain suspended. It is more like a toy train to cheer up poor Kashmiris and is not a real mass transportation link. However, there is allegation that the valley rail has been set up at the behest of the security establishment for quick transportation of troops in case of need?

There is no doubt that man has conquered nature in many fields with determination and will. Things which seemed impossible or were themes of some books on fiction like Jules Verne’s “First men on the Moon”, and “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, have been achieved almost exactly as imagined by the author. There are marvels like the Eurostar train crossing the channel tunnel or even the Mont Blanc tunnel. All these feats have been the result of tremendous hard work and dedication. However, the most important basis for the feats of linkage among these marvels of technology and hard work has been the urge of the concerned people to get linked up. In the case of Kashmir, in addition to being a fight against nature, the project does not have the basis of a willing linkage. Historically, the isolated valley surrounded by high mountains had only one natural linkage with the outside world. That was the route along the valley of the River Jhelum which subsequently became the Jhelum Valley Road. Till 1947, the year of the partition of the sub-continent and the first Kashmir War, this was the main road connecting Kashmir to Rawalpindi via Muzaffarabad. This road used to remain open throughout the year. There was an alternate road to Jammu known as Bannihal Cart Road. This was a seasonal road which used to be closed during winter. The division of Kashmir in two parts closed the Srinagar-Rawalpindi Road and there was no alternative for the Indian authorities except to upgrade the Bannihal Cart Road. Subsequently the construction of Jawahar Tunnel by Germans made it a year round access to outside world. However, in spite of the best efforts by the border roads organisation, the road has been a real headache. It must have gobbled up tonnes of money in keeping it going as the only lifeline of Kashmir! The worst portion is the stretch between Bannihal and Batote. The most dreadful stretches are between Bannihal-Ramsu and Ramban. It is all rotten rock and sliding mud. The tremendous traffic of thousands of heavy trucks continuously has shaken up the whole mountain. Right now these rock and mud slides are active again and the road is closed, stranding people and cutting off supplies to the valley.

There were many proposals to convert the link into a four lane expressway with couple of tunnels to bye pass the rotten area. However, these plans never materialised. Instead of upgrading the highway to an expressway or finding alternate alignments such as the one through Kishtwar-Simthan or concentrating honestly on the Bufliaz-Shopian Mughal Road, the top advisors and planners of the country decided to have a Rail Link. In fact, had there been no division of Kashmir, the Jhelum Valley Road would have been made into a six lane expressway by now! Ultimately, we may have to undertake up gradation of this natural passage way for an uninterrupted access to the valley. The basis of deciding the Rail Link instead of an international standard expressway is difficult to guess? Probably, the political planners felt that by linking Kashmir with the Indian Railway Network, reported to be the largest in the world, it will become more physically “integrated” into India? However, they seem to have missed the technical difficulties in forging the link!

In view of these damaging revelations, it is imperative that the Prime Minister takes a high level meeting about the whole project and directs the concerned to formulate a realistic project to link up the valley through international standard roads regardless of the areas through which these pass. There had been an allegation in the past that the road links through Kishtwar-Simthan and the Mughal road had been slowed down because the security establishment did not want the Kashmiri speaking Muslim areas of Jammu to get connected easily with the valley. Delhi has to rise above all these suspicions and trust Kashmiris if it truly wants to remove the bottle necks in linking the valley with the outside world and keep a lifeline open in all seasons and in all types of weather. At the moment the valley is like a physical prison with an undependable entry and exit. Attempts are being made to end the political siege of the valley through interlocutors and parliamentarians. However, there is urgency also to end the physical siege which has generated claustrophobia among the valley dwellers. Apart from improving the road link to rest of India, there is urgent need to restore Kashmir’s traditional links through Jhelum Valley as well as through Ladakh to Central Asia. Such demands are being already aired by even the mainstream parties now!


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