The recent declarations of the State Chief Minister that the train from Qazigund to Varmul will be extended to Muzaffarabad shows that he has stolen a march over the PDP’s slogan of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Bus. This is in keeping with the trend set by Kashmir’s politicians right from 1947 in projecting to common people very beautiful and sweet dreams. Knowing people’s emotional attachment across the line, it comes as a handy tool to take them for a ride. At one point in time people were shown pieces of rock salt wrapped in green handkerchiefs. There are no two opinions that Srinagar-Rawalpindi Road has traditionally been the life line of Kashmir. It is the natural connection of the valley with the outside world which got disconnected in 1947. Before one analyses the efficacy and usefulness of the train from Udhampur to Varmul and further to Muzaffarabad, it would be interesting to judge the utility of the Cross Border bus service. It is now almost three years since the bus service was started with great fanfare. It was projected as a breach in the sub-continent’s Berlin Wall. One had expected a massive interaction between the two parts of the state separated for more than half a century. The event was hailed as the beginning of a new SAARC initiative and one had thought that something like a European Union was round the corner in our part of the world. Alas nothing like that has happened. According to reports not more than a thousand and a half people have used Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Bus Service since its inception. Apart from the fact that there are not many people related to each other in these two cities, which is the basic requirement for travel, the miserably low figures are a result of cumbersome procedure of clearance. It is said that there are about 6,000 people waiting to get a seat on the fortnightly bus. First handicap is that only people related to each other can use this bus. Secondly the permit to travel is issued only after a host of intelligence agencies on both sides of the line clear the documents of the prospective travellers. The result is the miserably low figures of travellers on the bus. This is the maximum achievement of the so called détente and cross border bonhomie. Curiously there has been more vigorous and warm elitist interaction between the glitterati of Delhi and Islamabad than between the people living on two sides of the line. There one does not need the qualification of being related to each other for travel and interaction! The whole exercise of the bus has been more of a diplomatic and media event than a practical move to unite the two sides of Kashmir. Interestingly not many people know that there is no actual crossing of the buses but only travel by trans-shipment at the LOC. In fact, the bus in the Poonch-Rawalakot sector has been more useful as the people using it are related to each other and are living in very close proximity. Leaving aside the bus, even the telecommunication facilities both within Kashmir as well as across the border are restricted. No outside GSM mobile phones with global roaming facility work in Kashmir nor do any pre-paid Sim cards issued in Kashmir work outside even in different Indian cities. Barring of this facility is a licensing condition for all mobile service providers in Kashmir. Even though we can receive calls from all over the world and in return call a person anywhere on this planet, yet it is not possible to directly dial any number across LOC or in mainland Pakistan from anywhere in the state.
Let us now come to the much hyped train. An amount of Rs.11,000 crores is estimated to be the cost of the railway link between Udhampur and Varmul. The track itself would be an engineering marvel. It will have the highest and the costliest railway bridge at 359 meters above Chenab River. The railway line will pass through the longest railway tunnel in the world across Pir Panjal with a length of 11 kilometres. The number of smaller bridges and tunnels is in dozens. While the construction of the railway tracks through this mountainous country is a technical feat, its maintenance in the most severe winter conditions will be an impossible task. Presently it is a headache for the border roads organisation to maintain the highway especially during winter. It gets sometimes closed for weeks together. Imagine keeping the numberless bridges, culverts, and above all the numerous tunnels open in the worst blizzards which hit the Pir Panjal Range in winter. Not only have all these places to be kept clear of snow but the track itself has to be kept safe for operation. It would need continuous patrolling. It might have been easier and better to develop a six to eight lane expressway or a motorway with a couple of long tunnels avoiding the perennial sliding areas. There are already basic highways or roads via the presently used Bannihal Pass or Synthan Pass via Kishtwar available for up gradation. Even developing Mughal Road as an Expressway would have been easier and less costly. Unfortunately, some people are scared of connecting these Kashmiri speaking areas with the valley. Moreover, some leaders in Delhi are so obsessively in love with Kashmir that they can never imagine leaving it. They feel the best way to keep it is to connect it by train. In our college days students from outside the state used to taunt us by saying that we Kashmiris have not seen a train. Well, they are now bringing the train itself to Kashmir. However, trains do not connect people emotionally. One has to connect to the hearts and minds of the people. Had the Indian leaders been sincere and concerned about the progress and welfare of Kashmiris, they would have restored the natural connection of Kashmir to outside world through Srinagar-Rawalpindi Road. They could have also explored the possibility of improving present connectivity to Indian mainland by upgrading the present highways and roads. In the valley itself, instead of a toy train from Qazigund to Varmul, it would have been much better to construct an expressway all through the valley with entries and exits for en route towns. One would have taken just an hour to reach from Qazigund to Varmul. Another good turn for Kashmiris would have been to construct an upgraded dual carriage highway along the periphery of the valley on the existing roads. It would have given a boost to economic development of the entire valley instead of present overdevelopment of Srinagar and its environs. Historically the most important means of transportation in the valley has been the River Jhelum. It has become totally un-navigable at present due to siltation. It would have been a real revival of heritage and tradition if something had been done to de-silt the River and make it once more fully navigable. One could operate modern jet boats and hovercraft on the River which need no more than couple of feet of water. However, nothing has been done in this regard. We have the latest fad now, the “Train to Nowhere!” During the above mentioned interaction with the media in which the Chief Minister mentioned about the possibility of taking the train to Muzaffarabad, he also stated that a survey has been completed to take the train to Kupwara, the most militancy prone area. According to him, work is supposed to start on this section soon. This is inadvertently letting the cat out of the bag! Many commentators have been alleging that the sole purpose of the train is to facilitate quick and unhindered movement of troops along the border. From Qazigund to Varmul and Kupwara is the most sensitive defence grid and quick and unhindered movement of troops is an important requirement for the defence authorities. Moving of convoys of trucks through highly populated areas on the existing National Highway is a very cumbersome and risky procedure. Train offers a fast and a safer means to achieve this objective. The actual purpose behind the construction of this innovative means of transportation in the “Paradise on Earth” will be known in due course of time. However, in the meantime the laying of the track cutting across the heart of the valley has resulted in water-logging due to blockage of natural water channels. Additionally, the entire landscape has been changed for the worse by the cutting of most of the hillocks en route for getting earth to prepare the track. God alone knows what would have happened to the beautiful valley of Kashmir by the time the train reaches Muzaffarabad?