India’s struggle to build a railway to troubled Kashmir has become a symbol of the infrastructure gap with neighboring China, whose speed in building road and rail links is giving it a strategic edge on the mountainous frontier.
Nearly a quarter of a century after work began on the project aimed at integrating the revolt-torn territory and bolstering the supply route for troops deployed there, barely a quarter of the 345km Kashmir track has been laid.
Tunnels collapsed, funds dried up and, faced with the challenge of laying tracks over the 3,352m Pir Panjal range, railway officials and geologists bickered over the route, with some saying it was just too risky.
The proposed train, which will run not far from the heavily militarized border with Pakistan, has also faced threats from militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed region, with engineers kidnapped in the early days of the project.
China’s railway system has been plagued by scandal. A bullet train crash last month killed 40 people and triggered a freeze on new rail project approvals, but the country managed to build the 1,140km Qinghai-Tibet line, which crosses permanently frozen ground and climbs to more than 5,000m above sea level, in five years.
It has also built bitumen roads throughout its side of the frontier, making it easier for Chinese troops to move around — and mass there, if confrontation ever escalates.
Indians have long fretted about the economic advantages that China gains from its infrastructure expertise, but the tale of India’s hardships in building the railway line also shows how China’s mastery of infrastructure could yet come to matter in the territorial disputes that still dog relations.
Both train networks, China’s running far to the north and India’s hundreds of kilometers away in the southern reaches of the Himalayas, reflect the desire to tighten political and economic links with their two restive regions — the Tibet Autonomous region in China’s case and Kashmir for India.
However, they would also form a key element in military plans to move men and armor in the forbidding region in a time of conflict.
Should India-China relations ever deteriorate to the verge of military confrontation and if riots in Tibet erupt, the People’s Liberation Army’s mountain brigades can rapidly deploy to the region. Railway and road construction have been China’s Himalayan strategy for decades.
“China outstrips India in at least three respects: the ability to execute large and complex projects; rapid implementation; and — importantly — the foresight to embark upon these projects for economic and strategic purposes,” said Shashank Joshi at London’s Royal United Services Institute, who has written extensively on India-China relations.
China was also more proficient at concealing its failures because of its closed political system and excellent information management, he added.
On the other hand, India has not yet determined its priorities in the region, which shares borders with both Pakistan and China.
“India has to decide what it wants to be. If integrating Kashmir is a top national priority, then the project should have moved onto a war footing long ago,” one visibly exasperated military commander in Kashmir said.
Here in the lower stretch of the line, workers are struggling to build tunnels through soft mountains to bring the track from the railhead in Udhampur, 25km away.