Connecting the Valley

Uchit Singhal, Dr Shally
We live in a dynamic world and nothing is more evident to it than the Railway map of our country. Railway tracks are connecting the hitherto unreached and far flung areas of our country with the mainstream, thus ushering into a new era of socio-economic development and helping realize the Directive Principles as mentioned in Part-IV of the Supreme Law of the Land i.e. Indian Constitution.
One such project in this direction, which deserves a special mention, has been Udhampur-Srinagar- Baramulla rail link project which in short is better known as USBRL project. Two stretches of this project Udhampur-Katra and Banihal-Baramulla have already been commissioned over which the trains are running successfully. Only a 111 km patch that between Katra-Banihal is now remaining which is also expected to get completed soon as it is being chased at the highest level. The project during its various phases of completion has given arise to multiple engineering and architectural marvels. Whether it be the mighty Chenab bridge which holds the record of being the Worlds’ highest Railway arch bridge or the majestic Anji Khad bridge which being the first cable stayed railway bridge of our nation, these bridges are truly the modern-day wonders which showcase the strength of Rising and shining India.
Once the project gets completed, the whole traffic pattern between Jammu-Srinagar-Jammu is expected to change. Presently due to rough terrain which in turn is partially due to road construction works up ahead and intermittent stone felling, queues of trucks stretch sometimes even upto Jammu starting from Ramban. Trucks are taking more than 24 hrs to reach Srinagar area from Jammu area and almost similar time is taken on the way back also. This humongous time increases the turnaround duration and in turn affects the truck availability. In addition to causing further traffic jams enroute, it causes wastage of fuel also thus causing more pollution. Further a lot of human resource has to be presently deployed to manage the traffic situation, which in turn proves to be very costly to the economy. Road presently serves as the only important mode of bulk transport to valley and beyond. But this all will change once the valley gets connected with the mainstream railway line. One goods rake is almost equivalent to the tune of 130-150 trucks. This will mean less traffic on the roads than presently is, in turn causing less pollution. It will also increase the truck availability and will also translate into faster transportation. Goods which take almost 24 hrs to cross this region will reach the valley within 6-7 hours. All kind of commodities whether food grain, cement, fertilizer, petroleum products or perishable food products will then be able to move via train whether in form of full goods rake or parcel. This will be a win-win situation for both the environment and the economy and will bring about the true complementarity between roadways and railways. Container and Ro-Ro (Roll on and Roll off) train transportation if adopted will further be an icing on the cake. Small aggregators can aggregate the goods which can be sent by container rakes which can in turn be operated by any of the Chenab Bridge Anji Khad Bbridge present CTOs and trucks can mount upon the flat railway wagons to reach the Kashmir region in a very economical and ecological fashion. Ro-Ro has proved its mettle in the Konkan region where the transport via trucks proved to be both ecologically and economically bad. Due to hilly terrain of western ghats, the trucks could ply with less loads and that too at a very less fuel mileage.
When the nation was starving for oxygen in the second wave of Covid, it was once again the Ro-Ro model that was adopted in the form of Oxygen Specials that plied length and breadth of our country. Recent impetus on PM Gati Shakti and the corresponding changes in the Railways Land Management policy to enable integrated development of infrastructure will further facilitate the development of cargo terminals and other cargo related facilities like warehouses, silos etc in this region. Under new policy the land uses have been clearly specified thus removing any ambiguity. Prescribing the strict timelines for approval will translate into more transparency making the overall procedure more business friendly. Apart from the above transportation benefit, another major outcome of this project will be bridging the cultural divide between the two regions. Jammu and Kashmir regions although a part of same UT but have a lot of cultural, political and demographic barriers between them.
This project will help increase the interaction of Kashmiri youth with the mainstream thus removing the sense of mistrust that has developed in them. It will give way to enhanced job and education opportunities in addition to growth of trade and industry in the region. It will also give a boost to the tourism sector particularly eco-tourism. Tourists from all nooks and corners of our nation will now be able to reach and enjoy the paradise that Kashmir is. The earlier mentioned modern-day architectural wonders will also draw tourist attraction. It is a fact that construction of vast network of access roads has provided connectivity to the hitherto remote, inaccessible and unconnected villages, many of which up till now could have been reached either by foot or through rivers.
Till last month, USBRL had generated employment of approximately 5 crore man-days. Hence the immediate benefits in terms of jobs, medical, educational, market and business activities have already started reaching the local populace. Last but not the least, the project is strategically very important. Seeing the geo-proximity of Kashmir to our neighbouring countries, there is always a threat of insurgency and Kargil like situation developing again. This requires faster movement of both men and material. In this direction, railways will again serve as an alternate medium of transportation to roads.
China has already started developing its network of roads and rails in the border areas to better establish its control. It is this network of transportation that will be major deciding factor in case any hostile situation gets developed. This stresses the need and importance of USBRL project which will bring the rail just one step short of the high and mighty Ladakh region.
To summarise, earliest completion of USBRL project and linking of Valley of Kashmir with the Railway tracks is not only geo-politically and socially justified but also ecologically and economically justified. All the players in the game stand to benefit from this single project which we call as USBRL.
(Uchit Singhal is an IRTS officer serving in J&K and Dr. Shally, a Ph.D in economics from Kurukshetra University.)