Pir Panjal Tunnel: Link To Kashmir Or One Within It?

Pir Panjal Tunnel: Link To Kashmir Or One Within It?

25 June 2013
Times of India
Manoj Mitta

New Delhi: Only three months ago, this ambitious railway project was described by the CAG as a link 'only within Kashmir, rather than to Kashmir'. The Pir Panjal tunnel, due to be inaugurated on Wednesday by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, will still not connect the Kashmir valley with the national railway network. The difference made by the tunnel is limited: the 145 km railway track in Kashmir, crossing the Pir Panjal range, has finally touched the Jammu region. It has however done so in a small town called Banihal, which in the 2001 census had a population of less than 3,000. The remaining 142 km of track connecting Banihal to Udhampur is nowhere near completion. Though the Kashmir half of the project, most of which is on the flat surface of the valley, has been executed in 11 years, the Jammu part, running through a treacherous mountainous terrain, has been bedeviled by 'poor planning' which, according to the CAG, caused losses to the tune of Rs 3,258 crores. 'The more critical section of the project between Katra and Banihal (117 kms) has been progressed only up to 12 to 14 per cent, and as complexities unfold during execution, the final cost of the project may rise manifold,' the CAG said, in its report released in March. In the project outlay of Rs 19,565 crores, the Kashmir part was estimated to cost Rs 5,340 crores while the corresponding estimate for the Jammu part was almost three times higher at Rs 14,225 crores. The problems holding back the Jammu half of the project launched in 2002 arose largely from the flawed plan of skirting the landslide-prone Himalayas on the mountain slopes. This is a far cry from the Kashmir half of the project, where a 11 km tunnel has been built to cross the Pir Panjal barrier, insulating the track from the vagaries of nature. For the more difficult terrain in the Jammu region, the Railways should have carried out a detailed survey of the area before deciding on the alignment, the CAG said. 'This alignment passes through various thrust areas and fault lines in the Himalayas making the line vulnerable to seismic disasters. However, the Railways failed to carry out geo-technical investigations of the proposed alignment in a hitherto unexplored territory and relied entirely on aerial maps and satellite imagery.' When questioned by the CAG, the Railways replied that they pursued investigation and construction simultaneously for achieving 'quick visibility of progress of work'. The CAG report observed that the Railways were however silent on the implications of following 'a high-risk strategy with a high probability of becoming counter-productive'. This indicated 'total disregard of professional norms and inability of the Railway Board in enforcing compliance with the standards laid down in the engineering code.' This project has also been the subject of a PIL filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan before the Delhi high court. On May 8, it issued a notice to the Railways on the petition seeking a review of the Jammu part of the project by an independent committee of experts. This was because, as the high court said in its 2010 verdict, the board's own review was found to have been 'scuttled' by two of its members, preventing consideration of a better alternative. The board is due to file its reply by the next hearing on July 24.