Srinagar, June 28 (IANS) Few ever believed there could be an all-weather surface link between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country. Even fewer believed there would be one in their lifetime.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi dedicated the Banihal-Qazigund Pir Panjal railway tunnel to the nation on Monday, they also travelled across the tunnel with a group of local children.
The message was both subliminal and subtle. Future generations of Kashmiris would henceforth not experience the huge inconvenience their elders have been through for decades.
The landlocked Valley's only link with the outside World till now through the Jawahar Tunnel on the Srinagar-Jammu highway would remain closed for days on end because of heavy snowfall in the Banihal sector of the highway during the winter.
Ali Muhammad, a local contractor, still remembers the horrifying experience in 2004 when he was stranded in Nowgam village near Banihal town for seven days.
"The snow simply did not stop falling. We were stranded on the highway in Nowgam village. The villagers gave us shelter for seven days but when all their firewood was exhausted because of the large number of stranded passengers, they tore down the wooden ceiling of their rooms to light fires to cook food and keep us warm.
"That is an experience I would never be able to forget. It snowed for five days and the level of accumulated snow rose to the first floor of the house in which I was sheltered", Muhammad recalled.
Rightly then, did Sonia Gandhi tell Kashmiris on the inaugural run of the 8-coach train that it would now run five times across the Pir Panjal Mountain even during the heaviest snowfall on the mountain top.
"That experience is now a thing of the past," Muhammad added.
The visit of the prime minister and the Congress president, which remained mostly focused on the developmental agenda, also witnessed many other landmarks in that direction.
Kashmir has become the first state in the country to get lavish financial assistance of Rs.710 crore for land compensation under the Pradan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY). Till now, the ambitious rural road laying flagship programme had no provision for land compensation anywhere.
The prime minister also laid the foundation of a 850 MW hydro power project on the Chenab river in the Kishtwar district of the Jammu region. The project is being constructed by a private firm that competed through a global tender. It is being built at a cost of Rs.5,517 crores on the BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer) pattern.
Manmohan Singh also announced an additional 150 MW of power to the state daily that would help tide over the electricity crisis to some extent.
The prime minister and the Congress president started their visit to the Valley from the army's base hospital in the Badami Bagh cantonment area of summer capital Srinagar, where the troops injured in a deadly guerrilla ambush on Monday are being treated. Eight soldiers were killed in the ambush.
"The country would not allow the nefarious designs of the terrorists to succeed. I salute the morale and the bravery of our jawans. The country is united to defeat the designs of the terrorists," Manmohan Singh told the people during a public rally.
Besides co-chairing a meeting of the state's council of ministers to review the implementation of the Rs.37,000 crore prime minister's reconstruction package for the state, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi met a number of delegations of political parties, social organizations and representatives from the local trade and industry in Srinagar.
For the Kashmiri separatist leaders, the prime minister's message was curt and clear. "Our doors are always open for those who abjure violence and want to work for peace and development in the state,".
This has fallen short of the expectations of some separatists, who believed the prime minister would invite them for a dialogue.
In a nutshell, the visit has sent out a clear message: The sky is the limit for New Delhi when it comes to development, employment and prosperity of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. But, if anybody expected Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to step outside protocol to meet any separatist leader, they wouldn't do so as the country gears up for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)