Reopening of roads in J&K will revive old Silk Road and it will definitely change State’s political and economic landscape but current effort ignored Ladakh
Silk Route has served as a confluence of civilizations and the reopening of the old route will make Jammu and Kashmir a favorite spot of tourism. The major roads which connect Jammu and Kashmir with rest of the world are Jammu-Sialkot, Poonch-Rawalkot, Uri-Muzafarabad, Kargil-Skardu, Leh- Mansarovar and Leh- Yarkand. A casual look at history also reveals that these routes contributed greatly to economy, cultural and political development of Jammu and Kashmir as it known for their historical and cultural contacts with outside region-Central Asia, Xinjiang and Tibet. The fact that the section of “Silk Route”, ran through this region, highlights the historical, economic and cultural significance of the various routes. All that need to be done is to learn from history and re-establish the cultural and economic contacts along these roads and will revive the Silk Route. Opening of these roads will totally change the nature of present interactions between the various communities of these regions that include Jammu, Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, Gilgit, Baltistan and Leh Kargil.
Subsequently, this process will provide positive inputs to the Indo-Pakistan peace process, Sino- Indian relation and also further contact with Central Asia through land route. Muzaffarabad-uri Road which opened in 2005 was the biggest confidence building measures between India and Pakistan relating to Jammu and Kashmir. The opening of this route for trade recently would benefits to apple industry, shawl and wooden furniture industry, since 80% people are engaged in these sectors. As it will be seen subsequently, the Kashmir valley has adequate goods, which could be exported successfully across the LoC. Poonch- Rawalakot Road was also opened in 2006 for divided families. A beginning has been made but this need to be consolidated and expand further. Beside trade, tourism is another important sector in the Kashmir valley and this region could also become an important hub for educational activities. Politically, it would also allow both sets of Kashmiris to appreciate the levels of political freedom, governance and security issues on the other-side.
Another route Jammu-Sialkot is yet to be open. In terms of trade transaction, economy, divided families or history, the linkages of Jammu with its neighboring regions – Punjab, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad can’t be ignored. The Jammu-Sialkot links both road and rail in particular has great significance. Before independence, this road was the primary link for the people for this region with the outside world and the railway line from Lahore to Jammu ended in the heart of Jammu city. If there are train services like – Thar Express between Munabao and Kokhrapar and Samjhauta Express between Wagah and Atari why not have Chenab Express between Jammu and Sialkot.
Government of India is also considering the opening of Kargil-Skardu road. However, the government seems to be reluctant to take any decision over the opening of this road; though the leaders make promises during the elections to maintain their vote banks but they forget the given words once they come to power. The LoC not only divided the Paharis in Rajouri and Poonch and the Kashmiris in the valley, but has also divided the Baltis in Kargil and Skardu regions who would love to visit the other side and see their relatives. Skardu is 130 km away from Kargil. If the road is open, it would take just five to six hours to reach Skardu. Today it takes five to six days to reach Skardu from Kargil via Delhi. People of this region from Leh to Gilgit, believe that they are distinct, historically and politically. Geographi- cally, Ladakh and Northern Areas comprise two third (78%) of the entire Jammu and Kashmir territory and historically from times immemorial, these region from Leh to Gilgit were interconnected economically, politically and culturally. Until 1947, trade and movement of people took place continuously from Tibet to Central Asia through Leh, Kargil, Skardu and Gilgit. Traders, caravans, people and religions moved along the “Silk Route”. Today this region cut off from rest of the world during winter session as the Zojila pass closed for six months in year and the road is also one of the most dangerous in the entire region. since two year army has started courier service from Kargil to Srinagar once in week during winter which is too much depend on the mood of the pilot as they often make excuse of bad weather and do not come as per schedule which always creates unnecessary headache to the passengers. Being an important region of the state it needs to be connected by air and land routes.
If the government can provide free air service to the Kashmiris during the blockage of Jammu- Srinagar highway for few days due to snow fall; why the government is so ignorant to provide an air service to Kargil once in a week as the region remains totally cut off from the rest of world for six month during winter session. Thus, the opening of this road is important. Apart from providing opportunities to the divided families and co-linguist people to meet, it might provide opening to the Central Asia. Skardu is already linked with Gilgit, at a later stage will give this region access to the strategic Karakoram Highway from Kargil and Leh regions. This will further link this region with China and Central Asia. Another important route lies across Line of Actual Control (LAC) is Leh- Manasarovar road and leh yarkand route between India and China, again ignored by New Delhi. This route is another option to India to reach Central Asia. Until 1947, the main roads of Ladakh were part of “Silk Route” spreading its fingers into Tibet via Demchok, into Yarkhand through the mighty Karakoram pass. From salt to oil, everything comes through Leh-once a connecting valley between Yarkhand and Central Asia. Today Nubra Valleys only links to the outside world lies through the Khardungla, the highest motorable pass in the world. The local in the Nubra valley are anxious to see the reopening of the old “Silk Route”. Economically, the local population will greatly benefit out of this routes, mainly tourism. Kailash Mansurovar, one of the most revered Hindu pilgrim destinations, is only about 300 km from Demehok. India should make effort to develop the sub- region from Leh to Demchok and Karakoram areas in Nubra valley in terms of developing roads and reconsidering the permit system in the inner line. But unfortunately India did not see roads as of strategic importance, especially in its border regions. Now, the process has started, let it not be limited to only one region. A beginning has been made across the LoC, let it be strengthen further by opening all the routes. Thus, the opening of all above routes will revive the old “Silk Route” and Jammu and Kashmir once again could become the gateway to Central Asia.
Moreover, after opening of these routes, they could be used for linking Gas pipeline. The construction of road links would definitely benefits not only India and Pakistan in CBM, but also to the people of both sides of Jammu and Kashmir economically and politically. India energy needs can be accomplish by constructing pipeline from Central Asia via Afghanistan and Pakistan. As India – Iran – Pakistan Gas Pipeline proposal and Turkmen – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India Gas Pipeline proposal could be accomplish only by building good relationship with Pakistan over Kashmir issue. This age is one of looking for means of cooperation and integration despite whatever political difficulties may be involved. Given Indian growing energy needs, it has become imperative for it to tap into the huge energy reserves of Central Asia, whether in competition or in cooperation with the other major powers involved in the region.
However, given that energy pipelines will cross several national boundaries before they get to India, including those of Pakistan and China. India must necessarily adopt a cooperative approach. Either way, improving transport and other infrastructure in India’s western border states and, in particular Jammu and Kashmir, is an absolute necessity not just in terms of energy concerns but also within a purely development framework. One positive point for India is that both China and Pakistan increasing keenly their concern in the development of bilateral trade keeping other disputes on backside. In Kashmir, both countries (India and Pakistan) showed their interest to open LoC for trade purposes by keeping the Kashmir issue on back. Hopefully, the planned road construction along the Line of Actual Control and Line of Control is a sign of a change in attitudes in New Delhi as well as of an increasingly confident Indian foreign policy in its neighborhoods.
*(The author is a Research Scholar DSRS, Jammu University).
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