In February, a senior railway official of Northern Railway Division in an interview to local media informed that the railway will start running trains from Katra to Srinagar. The information did not lead to any public reactions or editorial comments. Strange, I thought. The news should have stirred some positive response in public.
Perhaps newspaper readers prefer to stay clear of official jumla-baazi now and wait for the event promised to happen. On the other hand I was very happy at the news. So finally I could even travel from Delhi to Baramulla without may be getting down to change rakes. Maybe not.
There were two indicators that indeed I would have to get down the train which I board at Delhi. The train to Srinagar will have only eight bogies, especially fabricated to suit the weather enroute Katra and Srinagar. It may not be a fast train in some sections because the track laid will not take heavy vibrations of fast moving heavy bogies.
The train’s main attraction will be again the Chenab bridge which will be traversed at extra slow speed. Passenger will have a free choice to either stare down the river from its elevation of 800 meters from the riverbed or close eyes in vertigo fear. The engineering marvel will always be a topic for discussion and pride for the local passengers.
I have been visualizing on what will be the impact of the new rail connection once it becomes a reality. Here one needs to refer to some other similar achievements reported in other parts of the world and extend their principle to our local conditions. We also have some local Indian examples to take benefit from. For example, a journey from Delhi to Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh became a reality, the journey from Guwahati to Agartala is another example. Rail link is awaiting energizing to connect Delhi to Imphal in Manipur by next year which will open train journeys up to Bangkok finally!! The world is indeed shrinking.
The first impact of a free unhindered travel from Katra to Baramulla will be the availability of transport to orchardists to move their cash crop from the Valley to the mandis in Delhi at the quickest and without fear of obstructions from road blocks due to law and order lock downs, snow pile ups, landslides and transport strikes. While apples can withstand long travels, it is cherry, pears, and peaches that will benefit more due to quick travel to move these perishable fruit out of the Valley. Direct dispatch from Shopian gardens to Mumbai would be possible, now if the railways add refrigeration container services for the purpose.
The Valley in turn will benefit from access to red meat products from the plains, more varieties of vegetables and fruits, aluminum, iron and steel billets for mills to fabricate material needed for local consumption, transshipment of irrigation and power generating machinery, petroleum products and movement of military hardware nearest to both the international borders touching the Union Territory.
We also visualize the baneful effect of the opening of the Valley by trains. There will be sudden increase in passenger travel into the Valley and the tourist industry must be prepared to receive this flood. Environmental pollution problem will increase manifold and the Valley is still not prepared to absorb this factor. A tourist expert has said that the Valley can absorb up to 50 lakh visitors. That is too big a wishful thinking. Nobody has calculated the bed capacity available, the requirement of hospital backups, the surge of cars and two wheel traffic, the ruination of well maintained gardens and the regular scarcity of consumer goods because of the new temporary population to feed. Religious tourism will also increase to shrines at Charaer- e -Shareef, Hazratbal and Kheer Bhawani. That will bring its own misery to the local residents because of late night noises and lights.
I have failed to locate evidence to suggest that the local government has held any seminars, ground surveys to assess the impact of the opening of the railway traffic into the Valley.
There is a news report that the High Court has asked a stop to development activities to be carried out in Gulmarg for fear of environmental degradation. That is good news for the hills and mountains around Gulmarg, Tangmarg, and Khilanmarg. The general apprehension is against the tourist invasion leading to scarcity of drinking water, sanitation disposal, waste paper and plastic generation and the like. In the absence of alternate plans available to tackle such eventualities one may need to contemplate temporary regulation of tourist traffic into the Valley so that the land could absorb the motley crowd of curious visitors. This is a reality which has hit many villages in north Italy during summer seasons who do not want visitors now because the crowd makes living difficult for local residents.
It may be necessary for the Union territory administration to first hold empirical analysis of the impact of the opening of the Valley to new tourism arising out of the opening of the region due to free un-constructive train travel. New arrangements will need to be made to create transport facilities for tourists travelling on trains to intermediate stations and into town; new rest room facilities at stations must be planned and also new mini markets at each station. The new requirement of electric consumption specially during the winter season now needs to be assessed and provision made for meeting the new demand. Recruitment must be made for creating new posts in the traffic department for both traffic regulation and road safety squads.
There will be a seasonal pressure of tourists seeking reservation on trains. This also needs to be calculated and new rakes and DMUs planned to be put into operations on demand. In fact the good that will come to the people of the Valley must be calculated now and the baneful effect of the coming of trains to Srinagar must equally be found out before the problems overwhelm one and all, who wish well the people of the region. The railways has not made known particulars on the rail traffic. We know now that the passenger rakes would be of 8+2 bogies, but the diesel engines are very heavy for the Chenab bridge and lighter pullers can be thought of. The goods trains may not exceed 30 box wagons. But if the goods traffic becomes popular, the authorities may need to add in the frequency of running the trains. Still night traffic may not be started.
Ideally I would prefer the entire Jammu-Baramulla traction be electrified. That would also be the least polluting public transport in the Valley.
The writer is ex DGP ITBP