In 1962, when I travelled with my parents from Delhi to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) during my school summer holidays, the rail journey ended at Pathankot. Thereafter all other stretches were covered by road from Pathankot-Jammu-Srinagar-Gulmarg- Pahalgam and back, in noisy and vibrating Tata Mercedes Benz buses. I recall driving past many signboards of Project Beacon of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which had begun work in the Valley. The stretch from Jammu to Srinagar, then taking 11 hours was indeed tedious. It was 10 years later
— well after the 1971 India-Pakistan War
— that the rail link from Pathankot to Jammu Tavi became operational.
Over the decades since then, work on the railway link to the Valley has been going on despite attacks by the Pakistan Army supported terrorists as well as strikes and shutdowns by the separatists loyal to Pakistan’s organisers of terror. Jawahar tunnel, better known as Banihal tunnel, situated between Banihal and Qazigund, 2194.56 m above sea level, has been operational since December 22, 1956. Built with the help of German engineers, it was the longest in Asia at that time, 2.5 km long and dug through a mountain of Pir Panjal range. Being the main link that connects Kashmir to the rest of the country, the Jawahar tunnel is in fact, it’s not a single tunnel, but a set of two long wet tubes, each 2,825 m long.
Prior to the construction of these tunnels, people had to cross the Pir Panjal using a mountain pass high up in the range to enter Kashmir. In October 2011, India’s longest railway tunnel piercing through the Pir Panjal mountain range was thrown open at Banihal to facilitate the ambitious Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail project. At a cost of `391 crore, the 11.17 km Qazigund-Banihal tunnel will connect Kashmir with outside world through rail and is scheduled for full operation by 2012, “We are trying to make all the rail links including Udhampur-Katra and Qazigund-Banihal operational in December 2012. We are hopeful that the project will be completed in 2017,” Member Railway Board, AP Mishra, was reported to have said. The train would take 6.6 minutes to travel this distance from Banihal in the south side to Qazigund in the north side of the mountain.
The project is being constructed by Hindustan Construction Company (HCC). The Pir Panjal tunnel passes approximately 440 ms below the existing Jawahar Tunnel. The engineering work on the tunnel includes width of 8.405 m and height of 7.393 m with a provision of 3 m wide concrete road inside the tunnel throughout the length for maintenance, emergency and relief purpose. Due to the challenging geological strata of the young Himalayan rock, New Austrian Tunneling Methodology (NATM) was adopted for the tunnel construction. The engineers had to face the challenge of eight different types of geological strata discovered during its survey and to meet the challenge around three excavation techniques were adopted to complete the project. The 119-km railway line from Qazigund to Baramulla is already functional since October 2009.
Over 1,500 engineers, geologists and labourers have been working round the clock since June 2011, burrowing out two sets of twin tunnels which, when completed in 2016, will reduce the distance between the two most important cities of Kashmir — Jammu and Srinagar — by at least 50 km. Travel time, too, will go down by about twoand- ahalf hours. At present, it takes about 10-11 hours to go from one city to the other under normal weather conditions. More importantly for the people of J&K, the tunnels will ensure round-the-year connectivity between the two major hubs. These tunnels will change the lives of people in the Valley. However, as per latest reports, the Katra-Banihal rail link remains a major problem as the Anjikhad bridge construction has been abandoned, owing to earlier sound advice being disregarded.
In October 2011, it was reported that the ambitious attempt to provide an alternate link to J&K with the rest of the country had seemingly reached a dead end, as the work had been severely affected by terrorist attacks in the area and that the government seems to be oblivious. The two crucial road networks — Bhaderwah-Bani-Basohli and Bhaderwah-Chamba (Chamba district falls in Himachal Pradesh) started 33 years back and were termed crucial for the state’s progress. This road would have considerably reduced the traffic flow on the Delhi- Pathankot-Jammu-Srinagar National Highway 1 and was particularly important for the people living in Doda district which is a poverty stricken belt of the state and geographically isolated from rest of the country. The work on the 60 km Chamba road had almost been completed in the early 1990s and civilian traffic had started plying before its official opening.
But the movement of militants in the belt made the security forces block this road as the civilians could have been easy targets. Similarly Bhaderwah-Bani- Basohli, which is a 166 km route, was scheduled to start a decade back and if the conditions had remained normal it would have been opened now. Security officials admitted that it is difficult to ensure the protection of workers in thick forest belt. Sometime in 2004 terrorists attacked the workers on the same road. Immediately after the incident, additional troops were rushed to provide security to the labourers and the project restarted. But before any headway could be made, the massive snowfall gave a major blow to the project. Due to the geographical isolation, many hamlets like upper Thannala of Bhaderwah tehsil have poor standards of education and living. For instance, in this village only seven people are literate and are mostly dependent on agriculture.
If this road is opened, then more than the 1,000 km distance will be reduced to less than 300 km enabling the producers to directly reach the trading centre of Punjab. Hundreds of hamlets in Doda district are facing the same problem and for them the direct link with rest of the country remains the only hope. The district has the highest number of Below Poverty Line families in the state numbering 63,000. According to the 1981 census report the literacy rate in the district was 18.50. BRO started working in J&K with Project Beacon at Srinagar in 1960. Initially it included construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, tunnels and air fields. Presently there are four Projects namely Sampark at Jammu, Beacon at Srinagar, Vijayak at Kargil and Himank at Leh. It is responsible for construction and maintenance of 1078.90 km of four nos of National Highways, 971.39 km of 12 nos Indo- China Border Roads consisting of GS, CSG and ITBP roads and 7160 km of non Indo China Border Roads (GS).
BRO is maintaining Jawahar tunnel and Nandini tunnel in addition to carrying out winter snow clearance in the state to give all weather connectivity to Srinagar. Also the passes like Khardung La for connectivity between Leh and Hunder, Partapur and Changla for connectivity between Leh and Darbuk, Shyok, Tangtse are kept open during winters. Whereas summer snow clearance operations are carried out in other roads to open Zojila, Rohtang, Bara Lacha La, Lachang La and Tanglang La passes to make the road through during summers to give connectivity to Ladakh region. For future all-weather connectivity to Leh, construction of 8.8 km long Rohtang tunnel is in progress, whereas feasibility studies are underway for Zojila, Z Morh and Razdhan tunnels. In addition another prestigious 546 ms cable stayed Basholi bridge across River Ravi is under construction to give an additional axis to the State.
On Republic Day (January 26), 2012, J&K Governor NN Vohra, observed that adversary elements operating from across the borders have not given up their malicious resolve to disturb and destabilise our country and said that the security forces must maintain a constant vigil along the frontiers. Adding that the disturbed situation in J&K in the past years has adversely affected its growth and development and that after the turmoil faced in the preceding three summers, the spurt of economic activity during 2011 clearly demonstrated that progress can be achieved only when normalcy prevails.
It is mainly owing the presence and sacrifices of the Army and security forces in J&K, that infrastructure could be developed and the past year attracted nearly one crore and twenty lakh pilgrims and tourists to J&K, including over thirty two thousand foreigners. This year shows similar promise much to the displeasure of Pak army and separatists, who are trying to stymie the trend. Imagine what it will be like when the world’s highest railway bridge five times the height of Qutub Minar and 35 m taller than Eiffel Tower will come up over the Chenab river in Kashmir Valley.
— The author is an independent defence and security analyst, is Editor, Word Sword Features