To borrow a cliché, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was stating only ‘one side of the story’ when he told a rally of BJP workers in Udhampur, ironically, earlier this week, that the Chenani-Nashri tunnel would change the fortunes of farmers from the Kashmir Valley, which gets cut off from mainland India frequently during winters.
PM Narendra Modi at the rally (The tunnel is) a line of fortune for people of Kashmir as farmers there will now be able to sell their products directly in markets in Delhi without any financial loss, which they earlier suffered due to closure of roads following snowfall.
But the 9.27-km tunnel is just a small portion in the treacherous 302-km National Highway 1A in Jammu and Kashmir – it will reduce this distance by 30 km and, according to officials, save fuel worth Rs 99 crore annually, plus two hours of precious time in otherwise 8-10 hour journey.
Nevertheless, in the Prime Minister's ‘tourism or terrorism’ binary, more than a message of reconciliation and hope, many regret how even development – the right of the citizens of the insurgency-hit valley – gets linked to larger politics surrounding the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Hameedah Nayeem, English Professor, University of KashmirIt is nothing new. Kashmir has always been projected by India in touristy terms minus its people. There is no institutionalised existence of Kashmir’s citizens in all this pictorial representation of the beauty of Kashmir. The politics of it is obvious to everyone.
Highway to Hell
The 41-km stretch of road from Chenani to Nashri becomes dangerous for traffic during rains and snow. But the real challenge for commuters lies much ahead. With about 32 avalanche-prone areas along its length, the Valley towards Jammu takes vehicles on an upward journey from Qazigund in south Kashmir and across the Jawahar tunnel – named after India's first PM.
Soon after emerging from the other side begins the risky 35-km stretch from Banihal to Ramban, which has more than six dozen avalanche-prone points; the road literally clings to the steep, stony faces of the Himalayas and it is here that the main problem lies.
According to official data, nearly three passengers are killed every day in the state due to road fatalities, many of them perishing during winters when the dangerous highway rears its ugly head; its cavernous gorges making no discrimination between passenger cars and trucks loaded with essentials. Last year, 910 people died in road fatalities across the state.
Due to the harsh winter this year, the highway was closed multiple times; at one point of time, the valley, with disruptions in air traffic, remained cut off from the rest of the world for six days at a stretch, pushing the prices of essentials to astronomical levels while also causing a fuel shortage.
Khalid Majid, Srinagar-based Poultry Dealer It would be a lie to say that the tunnel would end the miseries of people during winters. The most dangerous patch from Banihal to Ramban lies in shambles. How can you expect a 9-km-long patch to streamline traffic on entire 302-km-long highway?
Long Journey, Small Step
While the BJP-led centre may have walked away with the credit for starting commercial operations in South East Asia's longest road tunnel, the work on the Chenani-Nashri tunnel started under the previous Dr Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. Due to a foreign firm backing out, the deadline for its completion got pushed on multiple occasions.
Tariq Shah, Baramulla Resident who is involved in transportation business It is a small, baby step which will definitively help in making the Srinagar-Jammu highway an all weather road. The government must now think of ways to end the disruptions on the Banihal-Ramban stretch which is mainly responsible for cutting the Valley off from the rest of the country.
When the Australian company, Leighton Construction, backed out of the project with only half of the boring completed, it illuminated the fortunes of a local construction firm. What 20 firms involved in half the work managed to do in six years, Beigh Construction Company (BCC) achieved in just two years.
Imran Beigh, Managing Director of BCC, based in Jammu We presently have a 44-km Amravati Chickli project in our kitty. If given a chance, we would like to work further on this highway. The stretch between Ramban and Banihal needs to be worked upon and we are ready for it.
Until the authorities make up their minds, it is not going to be an easy ride for commuters on the Jammu-Srinagar highway.
Despite the media blitzkrieg, the Chenani-Nashri tunnel is not a magic wand that has abruptly ended the weather vagaries faced by passengers and traders in Kashmir. The oft-told story in winters, that ‘Kashmir remains cut off from rest of world’ is going to be told for many years to come.