The Banihal- Baramulla rail link is like a symbol of hope in the Kashmir valley. Transporting passengers everyday for a maximum fare of just Rs 30 it helps people save time and travel comfortably. On an average 23,773 passengers travel on this line everyday. Average earning on the other hand is around Rs. 2.15 lakhs. It is headed by the Chief Area Manager who is an Officer of the Indian Railway Traffic Service.
Railways also employs around 1000 persons in the Kashmir valley. This is worth mentioning because unemployment in J&K is much higher than the national average. The unemployment rate for persons between 18-29 years of age in the state is 24.6%, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of 13.2% in the same age group (J&K budget 2017-18). An extended railway network can provide thousands of jobs in the state in the form of Station Masters, ASMs, guards, loco pilots, pointsmen, booking clerks, commercial clerks, supervisors and so on. As stations develop (which includes opening of food courts, book stores, multi-purpose stores, taxi services) and become centres of commercial activity, many related jobs will be created. This will change the overall economic environment of the state.
Passenger/ Coaching Services
Running Mail/express, Rajdhani, shatabdi trains to and from Kashmir in addition to the intra-valley DEMU trains will prove to be a game changer. It will make Kashmir much more accessible and travel much more convenient. Currently, Kashmir is connected to the rest of the country via road and air. As far as roads are concerned, the valley is connected to Jammu through the Jammu Srinagar Highway which is part of NH 44 and is 295 Km long. It has its own limitations as it is often closed in winters because of heavy snowfall, landslides and avalanches. Along with that, because goods also move through the same highway loaded in trucks, traffic jams make it incovenient and time taking.
These shortcomings are easily overcome by railways as all-weather railway lines take a much shorter route and much less time is taken by trains to transport passengers from one city to another. This can be illustrated through an example- the distance between Qazigund, north of the Pir Panjal mountains, and Banihal, south of Pir Panjal mountains, is 35 km by road compared to only 17 km by railway through the Pir Panjal Tunnel. Moreover, it takes one fourth the time and the fare is merely Rs. 10-20.
Alternately, Srinagar and Jammu are well connected through air. But flights are quite expensive. Apart from that, Srinagar Airport has multiple security checks which are cumbersome and time consuming and even hand baggage is not allowed in flights departing from Srinagar.
To get a better picture, imagine the following trains
- An extended Jammu Rajdhani connecting Srinagar and New Delhi.
- A Jan Shatabdi express connecting Jammu and Baramulla.
- Superfast Mail/Express trains connecting Srinagar to Mumbai, Srinagar and Howrah.
- A North-South express train connecting Baramulla to Kanyakumari.
These trains connecting Jammu and Kashmir to major cities of India will take the process of physical integration of the state to the next level. This process will lead to more exposure and intermixing of the people of J&K with the people from other parts of India.
Whilst there is no rail connectivity from Jammu to Kashmir Valley yet, Indian Railways still accepts goods consignments from various parties to deliver them to the valley. The goods are transported up to Jammu via rail and unloaded there. Subsequently they are loaded onto trucks and taken to the valley through roads. However, once the project is complete goods can be transported directly to the valley in a much shorter duration and in larger quantities in a much more environmentally sustainable manner (Railways being one of the most environment friendly modes of transport). It will also de-congest the Jammu-Srinagar highway.
Further, a more efficient mode of transport is bound to bring down prices of these goods in the valley which will have far reaching effects on the local economy.
Kashmir valley also produces quality horticulture produce which includes apples, walnuts, cherries, pears, plums, almonds etc. Horticulture plays an important role in the economic development of the State and is the second biggest source of income in State’s economy. But in the absence of an efficient logistics solution that can take this produce to far off places where demand exists, much of the surplus production is wasted. With low rates of return, Kashmir’s farmlands are gradually shrinking. Since 2010 alone, 20% of farmland has been converted for commercial purposes. This trend can be reversed once Railways provides efficient transportation of Kashmir’s high value produce to different parts of the country giving farmers the income that they deserve.
A practical solution to this can be introduction of parcel trains (say ‘Apple Express’) that transport horticultural produce from places of production like Baramulla, Pampore etc to major metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai where demand exists. It is worth noting that this also brings forth a unique opportunity for Railways which has a share of only 2.62% in transport of perishable agricultural products. However, it has a much longer lead (Average distance over which goods are transported) of 1653 kms as compared to 522 Kms of road transport, which means that Railways can transport goods over a much longer distance as compared to roads.
Further Extensions of the Project
Further extensions of this project have already been planned though not executed. Although ambitious and tougher to execute, they are crucial both for strategic and defence point of view and improved connectivity within the State. These include-
- Branch line from Baramulla to Kuwara
- Branch line from Anantnag to Pehelgam
- Branch line from Jammu to Poonch
- Srinagar- Kargil- Leh line (Another similar ambitious project which is Bilaspur- Mandi- Leh line has been approved. Both are strategically important lines near Indo-China border and will have will have spin-offs for environment conservation, military logistics, tourism and the local economy)
Integration of Kashmir physically, economically, constitutionally, legally and emotionally is essential to solve the conflict and bring peace and stability in the region. The aforesaid strategies through Railways can definitely bring the State closer physically and economically. This is not suggested as a cure all that can solve all problems of Jammu and Kashmir but it can certainly go a long way in bringing much needed economic development in the State and removing the invisible boundaries that exist.