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Train to Kashmir: Era of new economic opportunities

Ziraat Times Editorial

After decades of work, the upcoming inauguration of the 48-kilometer railway line between Banihal to Sangaldan and Chenab Rail Bridge by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 20th February marks a major milestone in surface connectivity between the Kashmir region and the rest of the country. This inauguration comes in the backdrop of the Indian Railways’ target of opening the 272-km Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link project before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

For decades, the Kashmir region, including Kargil and Leh sub-regions, have remained physically and economically distant from the rest of India. This isolation, due to limited road infrastructure and harsh winters, has stifled Kashmir’s economic potential and impacted the lives of over 10 million people. However, the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link project, connecting Kashmir to India’s vast railway network, holds immense promise for the region’s economic transformation.

Kashmir region’s trade and commerce have largely been limited due to the serious deficiencies in and unreliability of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. The transportation of its major exports like apples, vegetables and other finished industrial products like cement, steel, wood-based products, bottled drinking water, textiles, handicrafts, etc. to distant markets remains a challenge. The current road network often adds time and cost, reducing competitiveness and impacting businesses’ and farmers’ income. A direct rail link would revolutionize this scenario. Imagine fresh Kashmiri produce reaching major Indian cities overnight, commanding premium prices and empowering farmers. This would not only benefit agriculture but also open doors for other industries like cement, bottled water, handicrafts, textiles, and pharmaceuticals to tap into wider markets, creating jobs and diversifying the local economy. Importantly, it could also give an impetus to some of the struggling MSMEs in Kashmir’s industrial estates, hit by the change in the state’s procurement policies after 2019.

Another major beneficiaries could be the tourism and private education sectors in the region. Currently, tourists face the uncertainties of road travel, especially during winter months when heavy snowfall disrupts connectivity. A reliable and all-weather rail link will significantly improve accessibility, attracting year-round tourism and injecting much-needed revenue into the local economy. This ease of access will not only benefit established destinations like Gulmarg and Pahalgam but also open up lesser-known gems like Yusmarg, Bangus valley, Rafiabad valleys, Shikargah in Tral and other many locations, fostering balanced development across the region. Rail connectivity could also present an opportunity to Kashmir’s private education sector. If the sector prepares and rejuvenates itself for higher quality education services, considering the valley’s magnetism for its weather and clean environment, it could mark a new growth-oriented beginning for the sector.

Rail connectivity to Kashmir could be instrumental in lowering the cost of living for its people. Essential commodities like food, fuel, fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) and construction materials are currently transported to Kashmir through expensive and time-consuming road routes. This translates to higher prices for consumers and hinders infrastructural development. Rail connectivity would significantly reduce transportation costs, making essential goods more affordable and boosting purchasing power. Additionally, cheaper construction materials would pave the way for more affordable housing and development projects, improving the overall quality of life for its residents.

While the potential benefits of this watershed development are many, some potential challenges remain which would require close policy level monitoring and advance planning. Kashmir’s environment and natural aesthetic beauty are fragile and already under stress from acute urbanisation. Environmental conservation and preservation will have to take greater priority in public policy planning in J&K. Similarly, promoting tourism responsibly would need close consideration as well. In the final analysis, connecting Kashmir Valley to India’s railway network is not just an infrastructural project; it is a gateway to many potential  positive possibilities.

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