A rail link in the Indus Plains in Ladakh, similar to the Kashmir Railway, will have spin-offs for environment conservation, military logistics, tourism and the local economy.
After the Banihal-Baramulla railway, the Indian Railways should now plan to build a line in the plains of Ladakh along the Indus river. Its alignment could be from Batalik-Khalatse-Leh-Karu to Chushul. The stretch, of approximately 500 kilometres, is plain, interspersed with populated and fertile regions and is along an arterial road in Ladakh, from Batalik to Chushul.
We propose this idea inspired by the popular, standalone 119 km Baramullah-Qazigund railway line in the Kashmir Valley, in operation since October 2009. With the recent inauguration of the 11 km Qazigund-Banihal tunnel by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Kashmir Railway will now extend from Baramulla to Banihal. The railway tunnel, constructed at a cost of Rs.1172 crore, will be operational round the year unlike the Jawahar Road tunnel which closes during heavy snowfall for a few days. This railway line is a popular all-weather mode of transportation for passenger and freight in the valley, evident from the fact that there have been no threats by insurgents to this service. It is run by a 1,400 HP diesel engine with a heating system for quick and trouble free service in winter. The Qazigund-Banihal section does not connect the Kashmir Valley with the national network of the Indian Railways. It is only an internal rail point of Kashmir touching Banihal which is a part of the Jammu region.
The importance of all-weather connectivity by rail to remote regions has been recognised by the Government of India not only as a strategic necessity but also as a more economical mode of transport for development. It has so far accepted 11 national railway projects to enable greater integration of remote regions with the rest of India. One of them is the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramullah stretch. The construction of a 290 km-long railway line with a budget of Rs.19,565 crore is to be completed by December 2017.
Approximately one-third of the work has been completed which includes Banihal to Baramullah. The remaining work, from Udhampur to Banihal, is one of the greatest engineering challenges in the world and across the mighty Pir Panjal range. Perhaps the only system it can be compared with is the Qinghai-Tibet Railway connecting Golmund to Lhasa, which has been in service from July 1, 2006.
In addition, some more strategic projects are in the pipeline. These include a major 500 km-long Srinagar-Kargil-Leh line. The Railway Budget of 2013-14 includes a survey for this project. This would again be a great engineering feat over the Zanskar mountains and a part of the Great Himalayan Range.
A railway line along the Indus in the Ladakh plains, similar to the Banihal-Baramullah railway in the Valley, would in comparison be a low cost project. The alignment suggested is from Batalik, 40 km north east of Kargil along the northern bank of the Indus, to Loma Bend-Khalatse, to Ladakh’s capital, Leh, which is also a military base, to Karu-Upashi, another military base. From here, it can connect to another proposed line from Manali (the Rs.22,831 crore Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line is understood to be under consideration by the Planning Commission). Here, the line would leave the Indus and move northeast towards Pangong Tso/Chushul. The route, of approximately 500 km, is plain; it needs no tunnelling and the construction of very few bridges. It is a cost-effective proposal and would be of immense help to the people of Ladakh, in the same way the Banihal to Baramullah link is to the people of the Valley. It can be constructed in a few years while the mega projects to connect these regions with the rest of the country take shape. There are already audit and seismic issues on these mega projects.
Environmentally speaking, this project will also be a clean one, as it will provide a green alternative in the Ladakh desert to the hundreds of military and civil vehicles which ply everyday on the Battalik-Leh-Karu-Chushul artery. It will save millions of barrels of fuel, which, when transported to Ladakh now ends up becoming even more expensive. The Army always prefers rail transportation as a quicker and cheaper mode of transport for troops and material. The suggested 500 km of alignment is all along army bases. The recent incident at Depsang highlighted the lack of good roads in Ladakh; an Indus Valley Railway may help in improving infrastructure at a low cost.
Tourism will also get a boost. Travelling in air-conditioned coaches in moonscape-like country would be so much better than riding in polluting vehicles on high altitude roads. In March 2013, certain scenic areas close to Pangong Tso, a beautiful lake — a third of which is in India and the rest in Tibet — were opened to foreign tourists (“Ladakh areas to open to tourists,” The Hindu, March 2, 2013). There would be hardly any place so beautiful and serene as this region of Ladakh. The economy of the Ladakhis will improve substantially, especially along the railway route. The Ladakhis had a flourishing border trade with Xinjiang, the Central Asian countries and Tibet. After the closure of the Karakoram Pass to Xinjiang in 1949, and Demchok and other passes to Tibet in the late 1950s, Ladakh has had no impetus for economic growth. Tourism has benefits but the local people complain that the main beneficiaries, mainly transporters, are outsiders. The suggested Indus Valley Railway line would benefit local and small transporters.
(Virendra Sahai Verma and P. Wangdus are former army veterans from the military intelligence who have served in the Ladakh region. E-mail: email@example.com)
(This article was published in The Hindu newspaper earlier)