By Dr. Ayjaz Ahmad Wani
On April 2, 2017, the Chenani-Nashri tunnel was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was thrown open for public use. The construction of South-Asia’s longest tunnel (10.89kms) was started on 23 May 2011 with the project cost of Rs. 2519 crore. This tunnel will cut the travel time between the two capital cities of J&K state by more than two hours.
On this occasion, Prime Minister Modi said that the tunnel was a “long jump” between the two capital cities and is indeed “an engineering marvel” with “world class facilities”. The average speed inside the tunnel is 50km/hour and will save a fuel of about Rs. 27 lakh per day. What is more important, as Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said from the same platform that day, that more than Rs. 7,000 crore will be invested for highway projects of the state in the next two years. He also stated that 13 more tunnels will be constructed to boost transport infrastructure in the state.
Development as opportunity
Such initiatives can transform the socio-economic landscape of the state and bring peace and prosperity to its people. From a conflict zone, Kashmir may well turn into a zone of opportunity. Revolutionising economic, social and cultural linkages will not only restore/reinstate the cross-regional political linkages and strengthen responsive administration in the state.
Projects aimed at developing infrastructure within the state should be given due importance and implemented in a timely manner to win back the hearts and minds of the alienated Kashmiris. It can be a win-win situation for both the people of the state and the government of India. In conflict zones, connectivity is very crucial as roads and highways can be used for the movements of troops and equipment to take on the mischief makers. Deep tunnels and metro-lines can also be used to save people and forces in case of possible nuclear war and can also be used as a runway for fighting jets.
The separatists and political elites in Pakistan — whether in government or in opposition — have alleged, over the years, that India is exploiting the resources of Kashmir and adopting a step motherly attitude towards them. However, projects like the Chenani-Nashri tunnel can shut the mouth of these people. Every common Kashmiri can leverage such infrastructure and link up with the world outside. Such commitment by the government of India to bring connectivity to people will enable and empower the common citizen in Kashmir and dispel wrong notions of India propagated by vested interests. This can act as a huge Confidence Building Measure (CBM) in a conflict situation.
A Tunnel of Hope: Whetting Developmental Appetite
The significance of the tunnel now inaugurated cannot be overstated. Earlier, when roads used to get closed due to landslides or snow, there was a tendency to blame it on the Indian state. India was being blamed for not building sufficient alternative roads, bridges and tunnels to ensure round the year smooth traffic. The Chenani-Nashri tunnel is a bright ray of hope for the farmers of the valley, especially the fruit growers, who mostly export their fruits (apples) during the winters to other parts of country. The tunnel will help as big refrigerated trucks can now export fresh apples without damage to markets readily available outside valley.
As an inhabitant of a village of apple growers, one would aver that it will decrease the freight of single apple box by Rs 20-30 and there will be no dearth of trucks/load careers during the peak of the fruit season.
Kashmiris have huge expectations and stoking developmental aspirations of the people is a good thing in the prevailing circumstances and meeting them in time will certainly restore their confidence in the government. The Centre should take these developmental measures on priority basis and execute them in a time-bound manner and accord priority to infrastructure projects that are pending in Kashmir.
Projects like Chenani-Nashri tunnel will also help hospitality industry in many ways as of now the distance between Jammu railway station and Srinagar can be covered, within six hours and help middle and lower middle class people from the rest of the country to visit the valley for tourism during most part of the year.
Importance of the proposed Zojila Tunnel
Most of the people associated with the tourism industry are optimistic about such projects that will help them economically and will provide employment to the youth in many ways. Besides the new developmental projects as that of Zojila tunnel that is being built between Leh and Kashmir on an estimated cost of Rs 6,000 crore. The tunnel will be the most important infrastructural development not only for Kashmir but also for the entire country. Most of the tourists coming to Ladakh now use the route through Himachal Pradesh and once the tunnel is completed it will boast tourism within the state as tourists will then love to go to Ladakh through the beautiful valleys of Kashmir.
With the Modi government’s emphasis on connectivity, the Zojila tunnel can also potentially connect India through its state of Jammu & Kashmir with Central Asia, through Yarkand and Kashgar via Nubra and Shyok valleys in Ladakh division or through the Srinagar-Leh-Yarkand-Kashghar route. Such developmental projects can reduce the importance of the so hyped China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as India will be in a better position through this infrastructure developmental projects to have direct access to Central Asia and can became major player in “New Great Game” in the region. This route can provide important economic opportunities to unemployed youth of Kashmir, Ladakh, and above all, it will bring new opportunities for bilateral cooperation between India and China. This is in line with the thinking in Srinagar which is being stressed by academicians from 2005 and more recently by the Chief Minister of the state in many rallies.
Addressing developmental lag can stem alienation
Government of India should also focus on speedy completion of new developmental projects. In 2014-15, the Central government had announced establishment of an All India Institute Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Kashmir and land was allocated for the same in the early months of 2015. The project needs to now take off at a fast pace in order to further cement bonds and arrest negative impressions.
The Central University of Kashmir, is functioning in rented buildings while the land for it was procured in Ganderbal way back in 2010-11. Even after a gap of seven years, the construction work is yet to begin because the land procured by the state government is marshy and has been allegedly bought from influential sections of society for their benefit. Most importantly, the site for the Central University of Kashmir is very close to the state university (only 15 -20 kms away) and the decision was taken by the state government for its own political gains.
A section of the political elites in the state, both separatists and mainstream ones, use these issues for their narrow ends and spread anti-India sentiments. Every now and then, the separatist leaders compare unfinished developmental projects in the valley with those in other parts (Jammu) to falsely argue of a callous attitude towards the people of the valley.
In short, the completion of Chenani-Nashri tunnel in record time is a ray of hope and a slap on the face of separatists as projects like these in near future can negate their allegations of “step-motherly approach” and “colonial exploitation”. In Kashmir, the main problem is not of assimilation but of speedy and efficient execution of developmental projects which can prove to be a game changer for the state. Prime Minister Modi’s approach seems to focus on that game changing dimension.
(With inputs from Dr Ashok Behuria, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( IDSA), New Delhi. Dr. Wani is a Ph.D. from university of Kashmir. He is an independent observer of developmental politics in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.)