A fragile rock structure on one hand and an equally delicate security situation on the other - This rail link passes through many militancy-hit villages, villages which were an ideal combination of unemployment and inaccessibility. Here is the story on the track is the alternate road to peace. Read on...
Ramban: The Ramban Banihal area had been the hub of the Hizbul Mujadeen outfit in the mid 1990s, with more than 500 terrorists operating here. But now it is hectic construction activity which is challenging the gun power.
Ample Job Opportunities
When Shafiq Ahmed speaks about militancy in Kashmir, people listen. Ahmed was himself a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen. He says he took up the gun in 1991 to make some easy money, but five years later, he surrendered. Today, Ahmed is a private contractor with the railways, and is head of the Garib Behbood Railway Mazdoor Union, which has over 4,000 members. The railway link, he says, could just be the best solution to the militant problem.
"The main cause of militancy is unemployment. People were educated but had no jobs. They had families. How could they support them? So militancy lured them," Ahmed explains.
"When the railway project came to our village, militancy was at its peak. With the project, local youths had an option they stopped joining militant outfit. The main cause of militancy now being on the wane is here is the project," he adds.
The railway link is virtually transforming villages like Khari. Just four years ago, most of Khari's 25,000 strong population lived below the poverty line. Jobs were hard to come by and armed militants were everywhere. But when the first railway survey was conducted in 2004, some of the villagers knew that change was coming.
Mohammed Salim Makdoomi, like many others, rented his land to the railways. His son got himself a job with railways and soon their mud house turned to brick and steel.
He says, "The change has been tremendous. We used to live in mud houses, but ever since the railways have come to our village, tin sheets are being used to make homes. We have concrete houses, we have got compensation for our land. We had not seen even Rs 1,000 in one go up till then. Now we have got lakhs of rupees."
In Khari, over 500 young men now have jobs with the Indian Railways. Another 1,500 depend indirectly on the rail link. Land prices have increased by over 400 per cent, from 16 lakhs for an acre to 80 lakhs. Three tunnels and a railway have changed lifestyles.
Says a resident of Khari, Farooq Ahmad, "Ever since the rail project has reached here and the tunnel survey was conducted, I left my private job and joined them. I get a monthly sum of Rs 5,500 and the condition of my house and my lifestyle has changed. My children now go to an English academy."
A Change in Mindsets
The biggest change, however, has been of mindsets. For years, Khari had been a hub of terrorist activity.
Mohamamd Salim says, "There were anywhere between 300-400 terrorists here. Every year some 40-odd youngsters woulld join militant outfits, but in the last four years, no one has gone the militancy way."
Adds another resident of Khari, Jalaluddin Maqdoomi, "When railway work started here, the difference and change was stark. The most important thing was that our mindsets changed. Youngsters got jobs, their thought process changed and their viewpoints and presepctives were transformed."
However, work on the part of the project in Khari has stopped since last year due to a problem with tunnel alignment. Villagers say even this brief halt is hitting them hard.
Mohammad Salim says that earlier he used to buy fruits for his grandchildren, but now he is hard pressed and can only afford sweets.
One-hundred-and-twenty kilometres away, another village is slowly leaving its past behind. For almost 60 years after independence, Bakkal had no proper road to speak off. Kapoor Singh's father had led agitations in 1948 and 1965 for a road to be constructed. But when work was abandoned in 1971 due to the difficult terrain, Bakkal had no option but to wait.
When railway engineers realised they needed a link from Bakkal to the Chenab bridge site, 12 kilometres of road were laid in September 2006, connecting Bakkal and 25 other villages to a state highway - a long held dream that was unexpectedly fulfilled because of the railway project. The 13-hour journey on foot to the nearest town shrank almost overnight to a three-hour bus ride.
Kapoor Singh, who is the sarpanch of Bakkal says, "Our village had a history. There used to one forest guard and one teacher, but with the road, has come an economic turnaround."
Prices of basic goods, which were earlier transported on horsebacks, have dropped because of the new road. Medical aid is more accesible now. So are better schools and colleges. And it isn't just Bakkal. Link roads have made 177 villages more accessible, bringing new wealth.
Ishwar Chand says, "Whatever road has been constructed so far, local buses have started plying there. There was total silence in this area, but when agencies came here and started road construction, the silence has been broken."
But there are grudges too. The railways promised a job for one member of every family whose land was acquired for the rail link. In Kashmir, land acquisition began in 2000, and over 1,900 acres has been bought till date. But villagers like Gulshan Begum in Ompoora complain that she sold her land for Rs 7 lakh, when today the market price is at Rs 20 lakh. This loss is compounded by her frustration of the unfulfilled promise of the railways to give the family a job.
"We are happy, but we are also very angry. We were told that jobs will be provided to those families whose land was occupied by railways. The Railway Minister, Lalu ji forgot all about his promise," says she.
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