The only surface access to Kashmir from the outside world is becoming totally undependable due to the crumbling strata through which it passes
From the ancient times Kashmir has been known as a landlocked country situated in the heart of the Himalaya. Mountains have been taken as natural guardians which let the country remain unmolested for a long time. The only access was through some high passes and along the River Jhelum. The valley used to be self-sufficient in all respects. There were though many trade routes over which caravans of traders would move. These were along the once famous Silk Route going to Central Asia and Chinese Turkistan, Yarqand and Kashgar. After Mughal annexation of Kashmir the most commonly frequented route was the present Mughal Road across the Pir ki Gali. Mughals always used this route to travel from Hindustan to Kashmir and vice versa. However, Afghans and the subsequent rulers used the Jhelum valley route which ultimately became the life line for Kashmir in subsequent years. This route remained open all through the year as it was all along the Jhelum River going downstream. There were no high mountain passes on this route unlike other routes. It had truly become the most frequented and easy access to the valley.
It was only during the Dogra Regime that the Bannihal Cart Road, the present so called National Highway was constructed. This road which was very difficult and tough remained open only during summer. It used to be closed during six months of winter. However the other routes also functioned mostly for traders caravans from the Central Asian regions like Yarqand. Even the Dogra Maharajas used the Jhelum Valley Road to travel from Srinagar to Jammu via Muzaffarabad and Sialkot. On the Jammu side there was train going from Jammu to Sialkot. The Jhelum Valley Road remained the easiest and the most frequented access to the Kashmir valley till the partition of India.
The partition and the subsequent clash in Kashmir resulting in its division between the two neighbouring countries completely isolated the valley from the outside world. The Jhelum Valley Road got totally closed because of the ceasefire line. The trade routes to Central Asia and Chinese Turkistan got blocked. In fact, Hajis from these areas used to go for Hajj through Kashmir! The Sarais or Inns of that time still exist in Srinagar! After the Chinese revolution a large number of refugees came to Kashmir. Some of these settled here but most of them migrated to Turkey.
The Maharaja’s accession completely isolated Kashmir from the outside world as it left only one route out of the valley, the Bannihal Cart Road. Earlier it was used in summer only but after 1947 it being the only access was improved for year round travel. Still it took two days from Srinagar to Jammu. In early sixties the Jawahar Tunnel was constructed by German Engineers and the road became an all-weather road and the travel time was reduced to one day only. The maintenance of the road is being done by the Border Roads Organisation. However, the road has been subjected to such a heavy trafficthat its maintenance is a herculean job. It is the hard work and dedication of the organization that the road is still traffic worthy!
The amount of vehicular traffic the road has seen in the past and is witnessing these days must be a world record of sorts. The entire goods traffic, the passenger traffic and the entire defence traffic moves over this road. Recently a tunnel has been constructed between Chennani and Nasheri which shortened the distance. However, the worst portion of the road is between Nasheri and Bannihal especially in the Ramsu belt. This entire area consists of mud, scree and sliding rocks. This is the toughest area to maintain and gets slides almost after rainfall!
Sometime back two more approaches have been constructed and thrown open. One is the road across Simthan pass connecting to Kishtwar and thence joining the existing National highway near Batote. The other is the famous Mughal Road taking off near Shupian and after crossing Pir ki Gali and going through Poonch and Rajourireaches Jammu. The Simthan road is still to be upgraded on the other side of the pass and has a rotten portion between Doda and Batote. However, the Mughal Road is ideal. These roads too get blocked in winter due to heavy snow on the passes. Both can be year round if tunnels are connected under the passes. In fact, the Mughal Road Project already includes a tunnel under Pir ki Gali costing about Rs 500 crores. By constructing the tunnel the road can remain open year round. Practically the Mughal Road is the ideal approach. It has to be upgraded to a motorway standard and can take care of the entire civil traffic. The Defence traffic may be hesitant to use the road because of its proximity to the Line of Control! They could continue to use the present National Highway.
There is also a railway line under construction to connect the valley with the outside world! The train has already reached Katra and is also in operation between Bannihal and Srinagar. The portion between Katra and Bannihal has to be completed. However, all the approaches would be subject to the vagaries of weather in the severe winter which Kashmir faces some times. Right now the National Highway is closes and opens after every couple of days. It is at the moment the only lifeline for the valley and is undependable! In the past after some major breakdowns supplies including kerosene had to be flown by the Air Force transport planes to save the valley from a virtual famine of essential provisions.
One wonders whether the Jhelum Valley Road the most dependable and the historical approach to Kashmir would ever be thrown open for all the traffic including the essential supplies? A utopian dream till India and Pakistan continue their perennial conflict! One of the most ideal solutions to the conflict is to fully restore the traffic on this road and also throw open all traditional trade routes of Kashmir including the ones going to Central Asia and the Chinese Turkistan! Will it happen? At least not in our lifetime!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir