Sixty one years
after Independence, Kashmir has finally got its rail network. Kumar
IN THE LAP OF NATURE: The Srinagar railway station has been designed to complement the scenery around
The Nowgam railway station in Srinagar bustles with activity during the trial run of the train
— Photos by Amin War
IN a month or two
when a train rolls out from Anantnag to Rajwanshar, it will be
the culmination of one revolution and the beginning of another
in the Valley. While the rail network will soon connect
different parts of Kashmir, the link with the rest of the
country, too, is not a distant dream anymore. When Ircon laid
the foundation stone of the Srinagar railway station in 2001, it
was not the ambitious thought of laying a 120-km-long track
across Kashmir that was on their minds, but fears about the
future and the security of the project.
The year 2001 was
the bloodiest in the state’s recent violent history and the
railway project was one common hate factor among the militants.
"There was a constant sense of foreboding that we would be
forced to stop work under threat," an official recalled.
The fear, however, remained just that.
Seven years down
the line, Ircon has achieved a feat that leaves many surprised
by not only the attractive railway stations constructed in the
scenic Kashmir valley and the engineering marvel accomplished in
difficult terrain but also the conditions under which the
project took shape.
When Shoaib Alam,a
septuagenarian whose land has been acquired for the project in
Budgam town, was asked what the rail project (because anything
coming from Delhi generates a debate here) meant to him and
others, he said philosophically, "Ye alag tarah ki
zindagi hogi" (it will be a different life).
bitter-sweet memories of its association with the Railways. Alam
says it was more than a 100 years ago that a proposal to link
Kashmir to Jammu with a railway line was first floated. The,
then, Dogra ruler of the state, Maharaja Pratap Singh, had
mooted the idea in 1898. But it never took off because of
financial as well as political reasons. The British, too,
considered providing a rail link between Srinagar and the areas
now in Pakistan through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but in vain.
Independence, the idea of a rail project in Kashmir was again
floated during Indira Gandhi’s time, but it got a decisive
boost only when the Vajpayee-led NDA government decided to take
it up as a national project, which meant that its funding was
the responsibility of the Central
government and not that of the Railway Ministry. It would have
taken the ministry several decades to generate the resources
The residents of
the Valley are quite upbeat about the project as most of the
local residents, especially the youth, have hardly seen anything
beyond the Jawahar tunnel that connects it to Jammu. For many in
the Valley, the excitement of train travel is equivalent to the
thrill of a child’s first plane journey. Though there are
likely to be more Kashmiris who have flown in planes.
The masses are
largely supportive of the rail project as they believe that once
the link with Jammu is complete, it would give a boost to trade.
"Transporting goods by road is expensive as well as slower.
In fact, the rail transport is not as vulnerable to the vagaries
of weather as the road traffic," Altaf Sagar, a fruit
grower from Sopore, says.
security around the tracks is massive and the Railways is likely
to deploy a large number of security personnel once the first
train chugs off, militants have refrained from targeting the
tracks as they fear it may put off the locals, who see the
project as a harbinger of prosperity.
separatists’ propaganda machinery has been in the overdrive,
more so in the initial stages of the project, to vilify the
Jammu-Kashmir rail link.
government needs it to send battalions of security personnel in
a short time. I have no doubt that this is another occupational
tactic," hardliner separatist leader S.A.S. Gilani said in
People may have
their political beliefs, but they seem to view the project for
what it essentially is — a quick mode of transport, which they
have been missing for decades.
But security still
remains the biggest concern. Mehboob Khan and Atiq Khan,
cousins, who run a grocery store in Srinagar, who had gone to
see the railway station, had to return disappointed as the
security personnel did not let them enter the premises. But it
failed to dampen their enthusiasm as they were all praise for
the project, "We do not think any person in his right mind
would be against the trains coming in here. It will be a huge
economic push for us. More tourists will come and business will
grow," they add.
in the Valley mostly draws sustenance from anti-Delhi rhetoric.
The arrival of the Indian Railways in Kashmir was also met with
a similar cynicism. A top Ircon official said he was surprised
to see a number of reports and commentaries in the media
claiming that the project was essentially meant to carry
soldiers into and across the Valley. But Ircon decided to work
quietly without any publicity that would have attracted unwanted
The officials, who
spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had engaged local
contractors for the Rs 1,500-crore project, which proved
beneficial. "We normally don’t do so as it keeps away
quality contractors. It was especially tough in the Valley as
enough expertise is not available here," he said.
inclusive work schedule, combined with the willingness of the
locals to join in this major developmental project meant that
the Ircon’s work proceeded as smoothly as possible. But for a
stray incident involving the kidnapping and murder of Sudhir
Kumar, one of its engineers, by militants in 2004.
One charge that
carries some validity is that the project has disturbed the
ecological balance of the region. According to National
Conference leader Omar Abdullah, a large number of trees had
been uprooted due to the project. This had loosened the soil in
the countryside which can cause lanslides, especially during the
rains and snow. But Ircon officials say they have taken the
developmental project as major as ours is bound to upset the
existing ecological balance to some extent. But the critics fail
to appreciate the enormity of our task," said an official.
train service will connect Qazighund in south Kashmir to
Baramula in north Kashmir. The 120-km-track will connect 15
stations and the journey will take anywhere between two and
According to Ircon
officials, due to the scenic view en route, the stretch will be
comparable to the Kalka-Shimla and Darjeeling tracks.
however, would not be really trundling in the Valley as they do
on these two historical routes. The authorities have already
given a nod to a maximum speed of 110 kmph on a number of
sections on the stretch. Keeping in view Kashmir’s curvaceous
and changing topography, 62 major and 610 minor bridges will dot
the tracks and there will be 87 underbridges. The rail coaches
used will have a chair-car pattern. The angular shape of engines
will give the trains a modern look. As the winter temperature is
often harsh here, all coaches will be fitted with heating
facilities. Officials have also made special arrangements to
keep the tracks clear during heavy snowfall.
Laying the rail
network in the Valley is a relatively small achievement compared
to the Herculean task of connecting Kashmir with the rest of the
country. As engineers cut through the Pir Panjal mountain range
and face the nature’s fury while doing so, they know that they
have a monumental task at hand. Nobody knows what lies ahead as
the deadline keeps on getting extended, (it is now year 2013),
and new challenges crop up.
But if the
challenge is Herculean, the Railways, too, is confronting it on
a massive scale. It has built the world’s highest bridge, at
359 metres, over Chenab river. A senior engineer says, once the
network is completed, it will have 855 bridges and 74 tunnels,
one of which will be 11-km-long "These are untested waters
for us and nobody knows how things will unfold," he adds.
are not uncommon as hundreds of men work on dangerous heights
using massive machines. Every day when men arrive for work, he
says, there is a certain apprehension, along with a sense of
thrill and determination to prevail against all odds. But as an
artiste would say these are the signs of a great work in making.
crowded railway stations in northern India, those in the
Valley, like the one in Srinagar, will be well-designed
and majestic. According to Ircon officials, they have
taken special care to keep the natural beauty around the
stations intact. And the chief example of this effort is
the Srinagar railway station.
building of Nowgam (name of Srinagar’s railway station),
is 8 km from the main city. The station looks like a royal
court. The retiring room, with its huge chandeliers and
fine woodwork with delicate Kashmiri carvings, is bound to
charm the visitors. The extensive use of wood, a hallmark
of Kashmiri architecture, can be seen around the rest of
the tation as well. The Indian Railway Catering and
Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) is planning to build a hotel
around here in the next three years.