Srinagar: The sleek red train speeds through a yellow-green landscape of harvested fields, neat stacks of straw, the Pir Panjal range and some fields of cannabis.
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Kashmir Valley’s first train that was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on 11 October runs between Rajwansher and Anantnag, ferrying passengers on a 66km route, twice every day. The train has generated much excitement among locals and looks like the harbinger of greater things to come for the valley.
As much a political statement as a development project, the train along with the gesture of opening up trade routes to Pakistan occupied Kashmir symbolizes the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance?government’s efforts to tackle an entrenched sense of alienation among the valley’s people.
“We protested for two months. I took part in those protests, but what came out of it? Nothing. About 50 people are dead. It was only a disruption to our normal lives,” says Yasir Altaf, a technician at a plywood factory in Anantnag, referring to the recent spate of separatist protests. He is among a growing number of people who have tasted the benefits of “development” and do not want to rewind to the period of political uncertainty. “This train is a boon to me, as I shuttle between Anantnag and Srinagar, where I live. I save on time and money.”
The ticket on the first morning train from Srinagar to Anantnag costs Rs5. And on the day this reporter takes the train, reaches its destination in an hour, on time. By road, Altaf says, the journey takes an hour and a half and costs Rs175 for a return trip. Taxi drivers who previously benefited from the lack of options on this route say they have now been reduced to running feeder services. “Earlier, people used to run behind the Sumos (taxis, as the majority are Tata Sumo cars) shuttling between Srinagar and Anantnag for a place. Now, this business is pretty much over after the train services have started. We have started looking for work elsewhere,” says Yasir Ahmad, a taxi driver at the Srinagar station stand.
The train itself is part of a larger project to connect Baramulla with Udhampur in Jammu, which, in turn, is connected with the pan-Indian rail network. The Badgam to Baramulla and Anantnag to Udhampur sections are still under construction. The entire project is expected to be completed by 2012.
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Large picture windows frame stunning scenery, installed LED tickers wait to announce station information when the project advances and reclining seats with foldable snack trays provide reasonable comfort—this train is more Delhi Metro than Indian Railways and may be a sign of things to come for rail travellers.
As the train stops at Awantipora for a little more than three minutes, an old woman and a lady with her child walk towards the train from the fields, ducking under a broken fence on the way. It looks like they might miss the train. The army swoops into action—an army man in a black bandana, in charge of guarding the tracks, picks up the child and runs towards the train, while others delay departure. The day is saved for the women.
This rail line is heavily guarded, with security personnel along the entire length of the track. The train itself is guarded by 20-25 security personnel from the Railway Protection Special Force, or RPSF.
Overall, there is a sense among people that this train will bring positive changes to their lives, and many cannot wait for connectivity to the larger rail network. “This is my first time on this train, earlier I have been on a train to Ajmer. I think it is a good project and will bring employment,” says Abdul Mazeer Deva, a physical education teacher who is returning home after visiting his brother in Badgam.