ONE of the biggest tasks for the Indian government in its Kashmir outreach has been to establish all-weather connectivity. In it, the biggest hurdle is the tumultuous highway, on which an under-construction tunnel collapsed killing many. Often in news either for violence or beauty, the region has been marred by this highway which has killed thousands by shooting stones and often cars rolling down the deep gorge.
It is over a 250-kilometre-long route dotted with mountains and a snake-like road running by the side of the Chenab river that swallows tens of lives every winter when it snows. The government has been successful in making some key breakthroughs in the form of the Chenani-Nashri tunnel that bypassed a pretty high climb to the Patnitop which often saw snowfall, even during summers at times, and cars sliding down the hills and thus a complete halt for traffic in bad weather.
The most recent breakthrough was the Banihal-Qazigund tunnel that was through for passengers reducing the travel time by almost one more hour. This part of the road lies in the cold Kashmir region just under the sight of the massive Pir Panjal range of mountains. The earlier tunnel that served as an artery entering into the Kashmir division was named after India’s first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and would be dysfunctional again at the drop of snow for just half an hour in bad weather.
The patch was also prone to avalanches and has resulted in the death of many including those managing the safety of passengers. There is folklore associated with the patch. A spot is named “Shaitan Nallah” or Devil’s gorge, where it is believed that devils through the stones from mountain tops at the cars that pass below. Another spot just after Shaitan Nallah is named Khooni Nallah where the recent tunnel collapse took place. Here too, people believe that the spot has a jinx associated with it which results in killing people and is thus named “Khooni Nallah” or killer gorge.
Given the cold climate in the Pir Panjal range, the frost that would accumulate on the road near the earlier Qazigund-Banihal patch would make it impossible for the transport to climb up to the Jawahar Tunnel. The new tunnel has thus ended this difficulty. It starts at ground level in Qazigund and opens up directly in Banihal, ending the effort to go up to Jawahar Tunnel and go downhill till Banihal.
The highway has some spots where it has been nearly impossible for the government to even make space for the double-lane road given the consistent landslides. Panthal which forms a deadly spot on the highway has been laden with iron roofs standing on iron pillars. The shooting stones usually land atop the iron roof as the cars pass below. There, the government has not been able to even expand the width of the road. One car or truck can pass at once and usually, this spot sees a line of cars waiting for their turn to pass.
The rail on the other hand is also seeing extending deadlines for the completion. The most recent update on this is that the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) Project is set to be completed by 2023. It will link Kashmir with the rail network of the country.
The biggest roadblock to this has been the ongoing progress on the Chenab railway bridge. This is poised to be among the highest bridges in the world. Anji-Khad bridge which is the first cable-stayed railway bridge in India will be a landmark development besides several tunnels and bridges being built under USBRL.
The Chenab Bridge is even higher than the Eiffel tower and is 1315 meters long and is 359 meters above the level of the river bed. It has 17 spans and the main arch span of the bridge is 467 meters long.
This government says, has been the biggest project undertaken after independence by Indian Railways. The 111-kilometre stretch is being built at a cost of ₹27,949 crores and largely awaits construction of this bridge to be over to run the operations.