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The Doomsday Junction


The extension of trains from Jammu to Katra has left this once vibrant city high and dry; Pramod Kumar takes stock from the city
PRAMOD KUMAR | Issue Dated: July 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Raghunath Bazaar | Baldev Khullar | Chunnilal Amarnath | Inderjeet Khajuria | Raghunath Mandir | Mahakali Mandir | Mahamaya Mandir | Kol Kandoli Mandir | Ran Vireshwar Mandir |

Before the unexpected disaster stuck, Jai Prakash was a taxi driver. A monthly earning of Rs. 20,000-25,000 was possible without breaking a sweat. The tip was extra. He didn’t have to haggle for it. Life, in all its forms, was good. There were no passenger services of Indian Railways to Katra. The devotees going to Vaishno Devi had to either take public buses or hire a taxi from Jammu to Katra.

This was before a rather small decision taken by the government stuck like a bolt from the blue. Last year, the government extended the run of around a dozen or so trains to Katra, which used to previously terminate their journey at Jammu. Suddenly, there was no need for passengers to get down at Jammu and take a cab. Needless to say, Jai Prakash’s business started plummeting. And it was stark. Suddenly, there were no trips for over a week. The earning was reduced to a fraction of what it was earlier. The loans started mounting.

When he could not bear it anymore, he left his business and started working as a contractual janitor at Jammu Railway station, at a greatly reduced salary of Rs. 5000 per month. He puts in extra hours to make ends meet. But meet the ends do not.

Jai Prakash is not alone in this ordeal. By a rough estimate, as many as five hundred thousand people in the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir were affected by the decision to extend the run of trains to Katra. Jammu hardly had any sustainable source of employment. It was heavily dependent on the 12 million or so devotees who flocked to Vaishno Devi every year. Devotees now directly go to Katra and save time and money. There’s nothing else in Jammu that can bring them back even for the return journey. Consequently, Jammu is in the ICU. Some say on a ventilator.

Transportation is not the only sector affected. Hotels, restaurants, dry fruits and the handlooms industry have been massively affected too. Markets have the vibe of cemeteries these days with minimum of footfalls and almost no sale. Some have started to rue their decision to hand over 25 seats from the city to BJP in the name of Prime Minister Narendar Modi.

Although the impact is pretty widespread, taxi drivers are the worst affected lot due to this decision taken by the Railway Ministry. Says Anchal Singh Manhas, President of the Taxi Operators Union, “As many as 509 taxi drivers and 1200 plus families have been directly affected by this decision. Those affected indirectly are even more. Earlier, most of the drivers used to make at least one to-and-fro journey every day for over 25 days in a month. The average income was between Rs. 20,000-25,000. The corresponding number has dried up to a maximum of 6-8 to-and-fro trips in the peak season. That too if you are lucky. Deduct Rs. 800 parking fees and around Rs. 10,000-15,000 for the EMI for the month and what is left is not even sufficient to foot the bill.” He further adds that he and his men are not against development. He even proposes a middle ground. While he advocates new trains to be run to Katra from other states, he does not want those trains which were previously terminating their journey in Jammu to have an extended run.

Others sound more acerbic. Rajendra Singh, 52, and a taxi driver like Jai Prakash, quips, “Leave ‘Achhe Din’, we are staring at ‘Bure Din’ as far as Jammu is concerned.”

He further adds, “We are not able to pay our bills, leave alone save something for the rainy days. Our desperation and helplessness is increasing by the day. What other job can I look for at this age? I have started to understand why farmers have been committing suicides in all these years. Our future is stark. If remedial actions will not be forthcoming soon, people will be pushed to the edge and might take similar, desperate steps.”

The 160-years old Raghunath Bazaar of Jammu gives a desolate look these days. Gone are the days when 350 odd shops here used to be bustling with tourists from all over India. The sale has gone down by over 50 percent overnight. Dry fruit sellers and handloom traders are the worst affected ones.

Talking to TSI, Baldev Khullar, President of Raghunath Bazaar Traders Association, says, “It was customary for the devotees visiting Vaishno Devi to visit Raghunath Mandir as well. That would almost always be followed by shopping from Raghunath Bazaar. And that’s not all. Many of the tourists who used to come by private vehicles from the nearby states used to break their journey at Jammu. The easy availability of trains to Katra means that more and more people are opting for trains over private vehicles. This has broken our backs.”

Kamal Gupta, the owner of the famous sweetshop Chunnilal Amarnath, maintains that it has affected his trade too. The footfall is not even a fraction of what it was earlier. The stampede-like rush to the shop has given way to desolate afternoons. He is also peeved with the government because he thinks that whenever they talk about tourism in Jammu & Kashmir, or put up a road show or something similar, they focus primarily on the Kashmir part, neglecting Jammu altogether. The going is even tougher for the 300 odd hotels and lodges in the city. Hoteliers and Lodgers Association’s President Inderjeet Khajuria says, “Those who come as a devotees are not like usual tourists. They come with shoe-string budget. Direct train save them extra money. There is no point coming to Jammu then. There’s over 60 percent downfall in the trade.”

All of them maintain that Jammu needs to be brought back to the tourism map. Locals claim that they have lots of sites of historical and religious importance, especially ancient temples, which can attract tourism. But they rue that the Kashmir-centric politics has always sidelined Jammu. They had put a lot of faith in Narendra Modi-led government. They thought that with the same party ruling at the Center as well as the state, things will change. But their hopes have been apparently dashed.

There are some places of mythological importance here. There’s a Jamwant’s Cave at Pirkho. Legend has it that it was inside this cave that Krishna and Jamwant had an extended battle over the possession of ‘Mani.’ There are other sites as well, including Raghunath Mandir, Mahakali Mandir, Mahamaya Mandir, Kol Kandoli Mandir, Ran Vireshwar Mandir, Asia’s largest aquarium, Bagh-e-Bahu, a notable Indian Army memorial and Mubarak Mandi among others. Locals believe that these can be developed as tourist attractions.

Mehbooba Mufti, the state’s first female Chief Minister, since the day of her accession has been assuring the people of Jammu that the region will be developed as a tourist hub. She also maintains that because of intermittent problems in the Valley, tourists are known to cancel their bookings. Therefore Jammu needs to be developed as an alternative, she is said to believe. Her focus has been primarily on Suchetgarh and Baba Chamaliyal in Samba district. These places are on the international border with Pakistan and can be developed on the model of Wagha-Atari border point with events like the beating of retreat and all the other allied programs. This, incidentally, had been a dream project for her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

As of now, as many as seven big projects related to Jammu are being pursued. This includes an artificial lake around Tavi River, restoration of Mubarak Mandi, Cable Car, Manda Wildlife Sanctuary development and construction of an Inter-State Bus Terminus. But these projects are progressing at a painfully slow pace.

The artificial lake on Tavi River was to be completed by 2013 at the coast of Rs 70 crores. The deadline has been extended at least three times. The cost of construction has also inflated to at least twice the original sanctioned amount. Similarly, the Detailed Project Report for the renovation of Mubarak Mandi was submitted as early as in 2008. The report put the cost at Rs. 3000 crores.

However, till now, only a sum of Rs, 26 crores has been issued. As many as two Chief Ministers have laid the foundation stone for the construction of Multi-storied Shopping Complex and Inter-State Bus Terminus, which was conceived in 2011 and for which a sum of Rs. 77 crores was released. But it has come to naught till now. The new government at Srinagar has appointed BJP’s Priya Sethi as the new MOS for Tourism. She is from BJP and represents Jammu. She has started taking interest in these projects.

If these projects come to fruition, it is evident that the overall footfalls in Jammu will increase exponentially. Having said that, it is also evident that these projects will not be completed in many years to come. The locals say that until these projects are completed, the trains should be terminated at Jammu rather than Katra. Failing which, the city is staring at its impending doom, both economically and socially.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017