Valley rail link to boost progress,says UPA

Days after eight soldiers were killed in a militant attack in Srinagar

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | Banihal | Published: June 27, 2013 5:57 am

Days after eight soldiers were killed in a militant attack in Srinagar,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi used the opening of the historic train link connecting the Kashmir Valley to the Jammu region Wednesday to reaffirm the government’s commitment to Kashmir’s development.

“People here are fed up of bloodshed. The youth here want jobs. The UPA wants Kashmir’s future to be written with secularism,development and democracy,where problems are solved through dialogue,” Sonia said at the ceremony at Banihal station to flag off the first train on the route.

It was the first visit to the state by Singh and Sonia after Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was hanged. About 10,000 security personnel were deployed in the town for the high-profile event that was held under the shadow of terror.

“Today,we begin a new chapter in Jammu and Kashmir. Through this rail link,Kashmir will eventually have an all-weather connect with the outside world. Even its remotest,backward regions will have equal opportunities. There will be development in tourism,handicrafts and other industries,” Sonia said referring to the link which will reduce travel time on the stretch by over one hour.

She praised Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s government saying it had brought change to the state and called for holding early elections to local bodies.

The 17.5 km link between Banihal in Jammu and Qazigund in the Valley is the first all-weather route between the two regions. Touted as the UPA’s flagship project that showcases the reconstruction of Jammu and Kashmir,the stretch has a 11-km-long tunnel through the mighty Pir Panjal range.

The only existing link on this route,the Jawahar Tunnel meant for road transport and opened in 1965,gets blocked in winter due to heavy snow. The rail tunnel runs 300 metres below Jawahar Tunnel and is shielded from the harsh winter.

The rail line between Banihal and Qazigund has reduced the 35-km road journey to 17.5 km. It also promises economical and faster transportation of goods,food grains and fuel to the Valley.

“I would ask railways to complete the remaining work of the Kashmir link as early as possible so that we can connect Kashmir with the development process in the rest of the country,” Singh said after flagging off the first train.

Singh and Sonia also travelled on the train with Kashmiri school children,with sources saying the two leaders were originally not scheduled to board it.

Built by railways PSU IRCON,the Pir Panjal tunnel is the country’s longest and Asia’s second longest transport tunnel. It has cost Rs 1,691 crore and taken seven years to build in the face of engineering challenges which are part of the 345-km rail link from Jammu to Baramulla.

Fully under CCTV surveillance to be monitored from a control centre,the tunnel also has automated fire-detection and dousing systems. The railways plans to complete the link between Udhampur and Katra by August,leaving only the stretch between Katra and Banihal to be completed,which is scheduled to be commissioned by 2017.

Until then,the railways is working out a system in collaboration with the state government to launch a multi-modal travel ticket,with which people can come to Katra by train,take a bus until Banihal and board a train again to Srinagar with only a single ticket.

The separatist Hurriyat Conference,however,termed the Prime Minister’s visit a failure saying Singh had not addressed the Kashmir issue and had projected it as a administrative and economic problem.

“The visit of the Prime Minister could have turned fruitful if he had announced some bold steps to solve the Kashmir issue. It is highly unfortunate that the Indian government continues with its traditional policy of obduracy and unrealistic politics,” said Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “By ignoring to talk about the Kashmir issue,he has rubbed salt on the wounds of Kashmiris.”

— With inputs from Bashaarat Masood

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