India is puttingthe final touches to the world’s highest rail bridge in Kashmir that was first attempted by the British in 1898. The arched project will dwarf the Eiffel Tower in Paris and a lofty Chinese bridge which now holds the world title.
The government has not announced a date for its completion but it is likely to be ready by December before tracks are laid on the bridge, built 359 metres above Chenab River which flows through Kashmir into Pakistan.
Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw recently posted online a picture of the bridge, calling it “the world's highest arch - Chenab Bridge over the clouds.”
The steel-built marvel crowns a Himalayan rail project that involves dozens of smaller bridges and tunnels for a 900-kilometre train ride from Delhi to Kashmir’s erstwhile summer capital Srinagar.
A 915-metre tall cable crane, the world’s highest, is used for the Chenab bridge, which has a 467-meter main arch designed to withstand wind gusts of up to 266 kilometres an hour and minus 40 degrees Celsius temperature.
“We have incorporated blast proof steel and concrete components as a protective measure against potential terror attacks,” said an engineer in Kashmir, India’s only Moslem-majority region.
Military experts say the design ensures the bridge will not be harmed even if one of the 17 piers is destroyed.
China’s Najiehe arch bridge standing 305 metres tall in Guizhou province is currently considered the world’s highest railway bridge.
India says the 1.3-kilometre-long arched Chenab Bridge built at a cost of 176 million Euros will turn around the fragile economy of insurgency-wracked Kashmir where several other Himalayan rail projects are also underway.
A bridge too distant
Analysts such as Srinagar-based Noor Ahmad Baba seemed upbeat but said the rail link and the under-construction bridge had missed far too many deadlines even after they were declared a national project two decades ago.
”We are dependent on a fragile road link between Srinagar and Jammu city in the plains and we have been suffering on that account,” Baba said.
“There is a requirement for stable connectivity to Kashmir and the railway link would be very useful for the state, its people, for defence purposes of course and for economic activity,” the political scientist told RFI.
“People have been longing for it but we are also slightly sceptical because for years we have only been hearing about the project,” added Baba, a scholar from Kashmir’s central university.
Britain, India’s then colonial ruler, made its first attempt in 1898 to reach Kashmir by rail and that was followed by similar plans in 1902 and then 1905. But it was not until 1994 that independent India made a breakthrough.
Others say they fear the prestigious project could encourage outsiders to settle in divided Kashmir, held in parts by India and Pakistan and is the subject of two of the three wars between the South Asian rivals since 1947.
“The worry in Kashmir has been demographic flooding and it would not be completely unreasonable for Kashmiris’ to feel that way and I think we do feel that way sort of generally,” Srinagar-based historian Siddiq Wahid told RFI.
The government in Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special privileges in August 2019 and split the region into two federal territories to integrate it fully into India.
“Development is not something that Kashmiris will reject but there has to be a sense it is being done for the good of the Kashmiris,” added Wahid, a former Harvard University teacher.
Tens of thousands of people have died and 400,000 minority Hindus fled Kashmir after militancy gripped the region in 1989, devastating the local economy.
India accuses Pakistan of fomenting trouble in Kashmir, a charge Islamabad vehemently denies.