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Saturday, October 10, 1998

Destination nowhere

Arun Sharma  
When former prime minister I.K. Gujral laid the foundation stone for the 287-km-long Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line in July last year, he became the fifth VIP to do so in the past 12 years. However, about Rs 340 crore later, the Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link still leads to nowhere.

While a Railways spokesperson claims 78 per cent of the work has been completed on the Jammu-Udhampur section and a final survey of the pegging of alignment between Qazigund and Baramulla was done on October 2, sources say only 13 km of the track, between Jammu and Bajalta, has been completed so far. Significantly, Rs 340.43 crore have already been spent. Of this, only Rs 78.3 crore has been spent on the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla sector. Completion of work on this sector alone is now estimated to cost Rs 2,500 crore.

The rest of the Rs 340 crore (Rs 262 crore) has been spent on laying the 53.2-km-long broad gauge line between Jammu and Udhampur, of which only 13 km is complete till now. Its initialestimate was about Rs 50 crore. Now, completing the line is expected to take another Rs 138 crore.

Railway officials say the Centre had initially sanctioned a rail link between Jammu and Udhampur in 1980-81, and the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had laid a foundation stone for the same at Udhampur in 1983.

However, in 1994-95, the Centre sanctioned a rail link between Udhampur and Srinagar as well. Later, the line was extended up to Baramulla.

A look at the files in the state archives reveals that the project has been hanging since even earlier. It was in the 1890s that the idea of having a rail link between Jammu and the Valley was first conceived by the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Partap Singh. The Maharaja, according to the records, awarded the contract for laying the Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla line to a London-based firm, M/s S.R. Scott Straten and Company. Partap Singh reportedly picked up Straten and Company after going through the feasibility reports submitted by variousBritish engineers.

It was only around 1903 that the work could finally begin on the project. However, during the Partition, it had to be abandoned.

The archives records reveal that among the first surveys of the project was conducted by a British engineer named Adam. He pointed out that though the gradient on the 42-mile section from Tawi river in Jammu to Udhampur rarely exceeded 1 in 30 (rise of surface by 1 metre after horizontally travelling every 30 metres), there were short lengths with gradient 1 in 25 near the Nandini tunnel, about 16 miles from Jammu. For this section, Adam recommended steam locomotives on a two-feet-six-inch gauge line with slight alterations.

But beyond Udhampur, Adam recommended electric trains due to the sharp gradient. He had also taken into account the problem of electricity supply for the link and recommended setting up of power stations near Udhampur (of 1,500 HP), Ramsoo (2,500 HP) and Banihal (1,000 HP). However, Adam's grand scheme was rejected by the then BritishResident in Kashmir, Louis W. Dane, who said it was not feasible to have power stations along the railway line.Later, another British engineer, W.J. Weightman, was engaged for conducting a survey and he gave his report in 1902, recommending a railway line to Kashmir from Abotabad in Pakistan. His recommendations were also rejected by the British Resident, who cited the plan of another British engineer, Wilde Blood, to link Jammu with Kashmir through a railway link via Reasi.

The Resident explained that a rail line along the river Chenab through Reasi would not only bypass the snow-bound areas but also ``enable the Darbar to develop coal, iron and lead mines in that direction''. This led the Maharaja to appoint British engineer Col De Bourbel to prepare a report on coal reserves in the area. Besides, he also sought a report from T.D. La Touche, the then deputy superintendent of the Geological Survey of India, on the Sangar Marg and Mehowgala coal mines.

After that, the Maharaja's government begannegotiations with M/s S.R. Scott Straten and Company for executing the project. This was sometime in 1903.When Indira Gandhi resurrected the project 80 years later, she proclaimed that the line would be completed in five years. Thereafter, successive Central governments have continued to heap promises and perform the ritual of laying foundation stones. After Mrs Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation stone at Udhampur, in his turn as prime minister. The same was repeated by his successor in office, and later by Suresh Kalmadi when he was the Union railway minister, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. While laying the foundation stone at Udhampur during his tenure as prime minister, Gowda had announced a Central grant of Rs 2,500 crore for completing the project on time.

While nothing much has come of the promises or the visits, officials gleefully point to the places the line will connect. The 287-km stretch between Udhampur and Baramulla is to cover important places like Katra, Reasi, Salal, Banihal,Qazigund, Anantnag, Awantipura and Srinagar. The stretch is expected to have 81 tunnels -- 89-km-long in all -- and a cable-stayed (pillar-less) bridge. The longest, 10-km-long tunnel would be at Banihal.

The Railway spokesperson claims that in the Jammu-Udhampur section, 112 of the 116 minor bridges have been constructed, and the building of the tunnels is also almost complete.

Sources, however, again dispute this. According to them, the Railways have awarded contracts for construction of only four of the eight major bridges on the 25-km stretch between Udhampur and Katra. And that contracts for construction of seven tunnels between Udhampur-Katra are yet to be allotted.

The upshot is that more than 100 years after the project was first conceived, all that the people of Jammu and Kashmir have got is a 13-km stretch of railway line, which is of no use to people of either region.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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