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Jammu, meet Kashmir
It wasn't just engineers who cheered the successful trial run of a train through the Pir Panjal tunnel on December 28. Among those celebrating were farmers like Ghulam Hassan Khan for, it meant that the 11. 2-kmlong railway tunnel linking the Valley to Jammu was ready, and the entire railway line connecting Jammu in the plains to Baramullah in north Kashmir was one important step closer to completion. For Khan, a fruit grower in Kashmir's Shopian district, the Jammu-Baramullah rail line will mean easier access to markets in Delhi and other parts of the country.
The 345-km-long railway line, whose construction has been under way since 1983, has a chequered history. It was only after 2002, when the then Central government declared it a 'national project', that the work gained momentum. Its completion date was 2007, but delays have pushed it to 2017.
The construction of the railway line is quite a difficult feat. Engineers have divided the work into three phases - the Udhampur-Katra section, the Katra-Qazigund section and the Qazigund-Baramullah section. While trains have started plying between Baramullah and Qazigund, work is at different stages in the other phases.
The Katra-Qazigund stretch, the most challenging to build, has the world's highest rail bridge coming up over the Chenab at Kauri in Jammu & Kashmir's Reasi district, which, at 359 metres, will be higher than the Millau bridge (342 metres) in France.
The Pir Panjal railway tunnel, on the other hand, is India's longest and Asia's second-longest tunnel. Called T8, it is equipped with a fire-fighting system along its entire length. Its construction was started in November 2005 and it was completed in 2011. Its total cost ran up to Rs 391 crore. A train will now take just six minutes to travel from Banihal, which is on the south side of the Pir Panjal in the Jammu region, to Qazigund in the Kashmir region.
When the entire project is complete, the rail line is expected to benefit Kashmiris greatly. With only a mountainous road linking the Valley to the rest of India currently, connectivity to the state is poor. The Jammu-Srinagar highway is often closed for weeks because of snow in winter and rains in summer. Not only does the frequent closing down of the highway harm the local economy but it has led to separatist demands for re-opening of the road to Muzaffarabad in PoK to facilitate trade. There is an air link to Srinagar but that isn't enough.
Ghulam Hassan Khan says that besides boosting his business, the rail network will help in the further integration of Kashmir with India. The link will help remove political misgivings between the people of Kashmir and the rest of the country, he adds.
The link will also help people like Abdullah Joo of Arizal village in Budgam district who travel down to Jammu and Punjab during winter to work as road construction labourers. "The link will make it easier to keep in touch with our families, " says Joo, who migrates in search of jobs when it is freezing in the Valley.
The project itself has been beneficial to many Kashmiris. With the completion of approach roads to stations, more than 73 villages will get connected, which will provide road connectivity to about 1, 47, 000 people. The project has also given direct employment to about 7, 000 local people and indirect employment to thousands more. Permanent jobs too were provided in the railways to members of those families from whom more than 75 per cent land had been acquired. The railways have so far given jobs to about 300 people under this scheme.
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