By Saurabh Chandra
Better connectivity for the Kashmir Valley will help integrate it with other regions of the state and with the rest of the country.
In the popular narrative, Jammu and Kashmir’s history during Independence is not looked upon as a partition of that princely state between India and Pakistan but as an ‘unsettled’ issue of accession. Sardar Patel used to quote the famous cliche: Possession is nine-tenth of the law. His earthy wisdom has come true in Kashmir. The reality is that the de facto status in Kashmir is practically de jure. In spirit of our Parliamentary resolution which speaks of getting the areas of the state under Pakistani occupation back, we never reconciled to the fact that for all practical purposes, Kashmir also got partitioned. Its consequences were also not actively countered unlike in the case of Punjab where the formerly poor east Punjab was given a huge economic and political boost with the engineering marvel of the 1950s: Bhakra Nangal dam.
Kashmir’s problem was different. The key economic linkage of the Kashmir Valley with the rest of pre-independence India was via the land route through Muzaffarabad. The Valley’s produce would find its way into Rawalpindi within a day using that route. Once this route got disconnected in 1948, it has created an insular Valley with people pining for the old linkages. The feel-good bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was started to pander to this sentiment. It is, however, nothing more than a token gesture given the low volume of usage. In fact, it further strengthens the sentiment which wants to reverse the de facto partition. Instead of reviving the dead linkages from another era, the real solution for Valley’s isolation would have been creation of excellent all-weather linkages with the rest of India via Jammu. After a delay of 114 years (it was the late Maharaja Pratap Singh, who in 1898, had first toyed with the idea of connecting Jammu with the Kashmir Valley), we seem to be finally nearing the solution that the Valley deserves and needs.
The project had been languishing for many years due to budget constraints till it was made a project of national importance in 2002. This ensured that the project funding is outside of the railway budget. A new line from Srinagar to Leh has also been announced as a project of national importance this February. This will ensure greater connectivity among all three regions of the state — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
The Kashmir railway will allow movement of people and goods at a scale and cost not possible today. We are already seeing green shoots of young Kashmiris setting up local businesses. Once a rail link is established, it will further boost the economic growth in the region and create a new economic corridor far more important than the traditional one lost in 1948. The volume of this corridor and the size of the market being connected will not only effectively replace the old one but will be more in tune with the demands of a modern economy. Over time, social and cultural links between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country will also strengthen given that railways is the true mass transport medium of this country. The new generation of Kashmiris can look forward to forging newer relationships and not remain beholden to tenuous linkages of the past.
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based technology entrepreneur with an interest in public policy.