(Repeats to fix dateline)
By Sanjeev Miglani
KATRA, India Aug 17 India's struggle to build a
railway to troubled Kashmir has become a symbol of the
infrastructure gap with neighbouring China, whose speed in
building road and rail links is giving it a strategic edge on
the mountainous frontier.
Nearly quarter of a century after work began on the project
aimed at integrating the revolt-torn territory and bolstering
the supply route for troops deployed there, barely a quarter of
the 345-km (215-mile) Kashmir track has been laid.
Tunnels collapsed, funds dried up and, faced with the
challenge of laying tracks over the 11,000 foot (3,352 metre)
Pir Panjal range, railway officials and geologists bickered over
the route, with some saying it was just too risky.
The proposed train, which will run not far from the heavily
militarised border with Pakistan, has also faced threats from
militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed region, with
engineers kidnapped in the early days of the project.
China's rail system has been plagued by scandal. A bullet
train crash in July killed 40 people and triggered a freeze on
new rail project approvals, but the country managed to build the
1,140-km (710-mile) Qinghai-Tibet line, which crosses
permanently frozen ground and climbs to more than 5,000 metres
above sea level, in five years flat.
It has also built bitumen roads throughout its side of the
frontier, making it easier for Chinese troops to move around --
and mass there, if confrontation ever escalates.
Indians have long fretted about the economic advantages that
China gains from its infrastructure expertise. But the tale of
India's hardships in building the railway line also shows how
China's mastery of infrastructure could matter in the
territorial disputes that still dog relations.
Both train networks, China's running far to the north and
India's hundreds of miles away in the southern reaches of the
Himalayas, reflect the desire to tighten political and economic
links with their two restive regions - the Tibet Autonomous
region in China's case and Kashmir for India.
But they would also form a key element of military plans to
move men and armour in the forbidding region in a time of
Should India-China relations ever deteriorate to the verge
of military confrontation and if riots in Tibet erupt, the
People's Liberation Army's mountain brigades can rapidly deploy
to the region. Railway and road construction have been China's
Himalayan strategy for decades.
"China outstrips India in at least three respects: the
ability to execute large and complex projects; rapid
implementation; and - importantly - the foresight to embark upon
these projects for economic and strategic purposes," said
Shashank Joshi, at London's Royal United Services Institute, who
has written extensively on India-China ties.
He also said China was also more proficient at concealing
its failures because of its closed political system and
excellent information management.
On the other hand, India hasn't yet determined its
priorities in the region, which shares borders with both
Pakistan and China.
"India has to decide what it wants to be. If integrating
Kashmir is a top national priority, then the project should have
moved on a war footing long ago," said one visibly exasperated
military commander in Kashmir.
SIGNS OF STRUGGLE
Here in the lower stretch of the line, workers are
struggling to build tunnels through soft mountains to bring the
track from the railhead in Udhampur, 25 km (15 miles) away.
Of the seven they built over the past four years, one has
collapsed and the other is seeping water. Now engineers have
gone back to the drawing board to figure out an alternative
"That is the way the project has been undertaken. You tunnel
and then you find it is not holding. You then try and skirt
around it like a bypass surgery," said Chehat Ram, chief
administrative officer of Northern Railway.
This is only the first of the tough stretches of the network
that will run through some of the world's most spectacular
mountains and gorges, offering an alternative to the single
highway that connects Kashmir and is vulnerable to bad weather.
Bigger challenges lie further down the track, including
building the world's tallest single-span bridge over the river
Chenab at an elevation of 387 metres (1,270 feet), higher than
the Eiffel Tower at 324 metres.
Across the valley floor are signs of the struggle to build a
network that even the country's former British rulers gave up on
after briefly considering it in 1898 because of the forbidding
and often uninhabitable terrain.
A tunnel built into a cliff edge has been abandoned near
Tikri in the lower section, at another place work has been
stopped after workers found that the section in the hills they
had blasted and drilled through had become waterlogged.
The train station built at Katra in anticipation of the line
is looking worn out, with paint peeling off and moss growing on
the building, two years after it was completed.
Local herdsmen leave their ponies to graze in the grounds
around the eerily empty building.
"People have lost their land, there are no jobs and there is
no train," said Lal Chand, a herdsman.
The deadline for completion of the project was August 2007,
but it has been pushed back to 2017, and even that is seen as an
optimistic assessment. Cost estimates have jumped, from 45.5
billion rupees ($1.0 billion) in 2002 to 195.6 billion today.
China, meanwhile, began work last year to build a rail spur
that will connect the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with Shigatse,
the monastery town that is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the
second-most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Joshi said China was in a position to bring far greater
resources to public sector investment than India. For instance,
Indian investment in railways in 2010 was about $9-10 billion.
In China, it was $118 billion.
"If the Chinese had to build the Kashmir track, they'd do it
faster and better than the Indians - but it might still fail,
and they'd plough much more into it.
For the hard-hatted men tasked with building the railway
line, comparisons with China don't sit easily.
"These mountains are full of surprises. Normally you would
survey one to two kilometres and then, based on the results,
extrapolate the geological pattern for the rest of the stretch,
but here it changes every 50 metres," said chief engineer L.
Most of the line runs either through tunnels totalling 109
km (68 miles), the longest of which is 11.4 km (7.1 miles), or
across more than 780 bridges, many of which span deep gorges.
"The comparison with the Tibet railway is overstated. The
Tibet line is largely flat, only 10 percent passes through
mountainous terrain and the rest is through plateau," said
Northern Railway's Ram.
"It is not to belittle the challenges they faced. To build a
network at that altitude and with those kind of weather
conditions is creditable. But the comparison doesn't stand. They
had to do a lot less tunnelling, far fewer bridges."
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Ashok
Pahalwan in Jammu; Editing by Nick Macfie)