Kashmir's Long Road To Prosperity
14 January 2004
Asia Times Online
Uri: While few in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) believe that the violence and bloodshed will end in the near future, several expect the likely opening of the road linking Srinagar, the state's summer capital, with Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) to transform their economy. In fact, in towns like Sopore and Uri, the mood with regard to the economic dividend is not just hopeful, it is upbeat. The opening of the 183 kilometer Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, as mooted by India recently, will facilitate travel and trade between the two Kashmirs ie, the parts controlled by India and Pakistan. Several Kashmiris have relatives living on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. If the road is opened, they could visit each other easily. At present, a Kashmiri living in the Valley has to travel to Delhi by road or air, and then fly or take a bus to Lahore, from where he has to then travel to POK. A bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad would considerably cut travel time and costs. Constructed over a 10-year period and thrown open for use in 1892, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was until 1947 the Kashmir Valley's main link with the outside world. It has remained closed since the India-Pakistan war in 1947-48. The road begins in Srinagar and runs through Baramulla and Uri in Indian Kashmir. It then crosses the LoC and runs through Kohala to reach Muzaffarabad in POK. The road has been extended to Rawalpindi in Pakistan. Kashmiris in the Valley say that if the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road is opened and trade ties permitted, their produce and goods can reach markets in Rawalpindi in a matter of hours. At present, they are dependent on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, which is blocked for months because of snowfall and avalanches. It takes at least 12 hours by road from Srinagar to Jammu when the weather is fine, and then several days by road-rail for goods to move from there to Delhi and on to markets in Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata. Kashmir's apple industry will gain significantly if the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road is opened. Residents of Sopore, a town along the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road that is famous for its apple orchards, say that their apples rot by the time they reach the markets in Delhi and other parts of India. An owner of an orchard in Sopore told Asia Times Online that the cost of transporting apples to markets would be halved if apples could be sold at Rawalpindi. Kashmiri truck drivers say that if they could take the apples to be sold in Rawalpindi, they 'would be freed of the harassment they suffer at the hands of the police in Delhi'. Residents of Uri feel that their town will witness an economic boom when the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road opens. Uri lies near the LoC. The Indian army has been here since 1947-48. Uri's economy is closely tied to the presence of the Indian soldiers. The soldiers purchase from the local shops and hire the services of Uri's residents. People in Uri feel that the opening of the road would bring Kashmiris from the Valley and POK to their town. This, Uri residents say, would boost their economy. Besides, they are hoping that the ceasefire along the LoC will encourage tourists to come to this part of Kashmir. The Baramulla-Uri stretch of the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad road runs along the Jhelum river and weaves through mountains of breathtaking beauty. Real estate prices along the Baramulla-Uri stretch of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road are said to have shot up in the past few months since India proposed the opening of the road. 'This more than anything else signals the enormous economic potential of the region,' points out a bureaucrat in Baramulla. A similar spurt in real estate prices along the Baramulla- Uri stretch of the road was witnessed in 2001 as well. At that time, too, India had put forward the proposal to reopen the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad road and there were hopes that the proposal would be discussed at the Agra summit of 2001. The failure of the Agra summit resulted in the proposal being put in cold storage, dashing the hopes of the Kashmiris. Will their hopes be dashed this time as well? Kashmiris, long used to broken promises and betrayals by India and Pakistan, fear that the reopening of the road is likely to remain a dream. Both India and Pakistan have reservations over opening the road. Sections in India fear that a bus link between the two Kashmirs will facilitate the flow of terrorists into J&K. Moreover, there is concern in some circles that as Kashmiris trade with Pakistan grows, their dependence on India would diminish. Some have also drawn attention to the possibility of Kashmiri aspirations for azadi (independence) gaining strength as interaction between the two Kashmirs increase. Pakistan fears that agreeing to checkpoints at the LoC would be a step towards according recognition to the LoC as the international border between the two countries. It was this concern that prompted Islamabad to announce in October that it would accept India's proposal for a bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad on the condition that UN monitors would man the checkpoints at the LoC. Pakistan's reluctance to respond positively to India's proposal did not go down well with the Kashmiris. While Islamabad has since come around to expressing support for a bus service linking Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, Kashmiris fear that Pakistan will not agree to the bus link. It is India that is seen now in Kashmir as more open to the idea of bringing together the divided Kashmiri people. Indeed, India is now pushing for the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. It recognizes that there is much to be gained from opening the road. If India is trying to erode pro-Pakistan sentiment in the Valley, what better way than to let the Kashmiri people see for themselves what Pakistan has to offer? Socio-economic development in Jammu and Kashmir is higher than that in POK. Many Kashmiris in the Valley might be Muslim like those across the LoC, but the Islam that is popular in the Valley is quite different from that followed in Pakistan. Sections in India believe that the most pragmatic solution to the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir is conversion of the LoC into an international border. As this by itself is unlikely to satisfy Kashmiri aspirations, a porous border that will enable the people on both sides to meet and set up cross-border institutional arrangements is being suggested. The reopening of the road is a step in this direction as it implies acceptance by both countries that the LoC is the border. It also facilitates interaction between the Kashmiri people. The J&K government is already preparing for the opening of the road as it is keen to tap the economic potential that it promises. With help from Delhi, the government proposes to convert the existing highway into a four-lane expressway. The tourism department is said to be providing assistance and concessions to those interested in providing accommodation to travelers in their homes and in opening tea shops and restaurants on the route. If the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road is opened, there is a possibility that India and Pakistan will start competing to show off the level of development and democracy that the Kashmirs under their control are enjoying. That would be the best thing to happen to the Kashmiri people in a long time.