Efforts underway for Modi’s presence at Khelo India in Gulmarg, inauguration of Qazigund-Banihal tunnel
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
JAMMU: The government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir in coordination with the Government of India is understood to be working on the plan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to the Kashmir valley after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. If all goes well, Prime Minister must be addressing the closing ceremony of ‘Khelo India’ at Gulmarg on 2 March and inaugurating the Qazigund-Banihal tunnel on the Srinagar-Jammu highway on the same day.The twin-tube tunnel, 8.45 km long with four lanes in each tube on National Hioghway-44, will reduce 16 km of the road length and save 90 to 120 minutes of time for the travellers on this highway.Currently the valley of Kashmir remains cut-off from the rest of the country and the world quite often in the winter as its only lifeline remains frequently closed due to heavy snowfall and avalanches between Qazigund and Banihal which has a 3 km long Jawahar Tunnel. The new tunnel constructed 400 km below Jawahar Tunnel will bring remarkable relief to the people in Kashmir.Even as the Prime Minister’s visit had not been finalised until Monday night, authorities have begun to put in place all the necessary security arrangements and logistics both at Gulmarg and Qazigund-Banihal. Should it mature, it will be Prime Minister Modi’s first ever visit to Jammu and Kashmir after the erstwhile State was divided into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh and its special constitutional status was withdrawn on 5 August 2019.The hill station of Gulmarg, around 8,000 feet above the sea level and 52 Km from Srinagar, is already packed to its capacity as all huts and hotels stand sold out from 18 January to 18 April. Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is organising a winter games festival under ‘Khelo India’ programme at Gulmarg from 26 February to 2 March, close on the heels of a series of winter carnivals at Pahalgam and Sonmarg.As many as 1,200 national players and sports enthusiasts and 150 VIPs would be participating in the week-long festival under the ‘Khelo India’ programme, scheduled to start at the snow-capped Gulmarg on Friday, 26 February. Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council, which is the main organiser of the event, is expecting the Prime Minister to meet, honour and address the players at the closing ceremony on 2 March.The first ‘Khelo India’ winter sports event was organised in Jammu and Kashmir at Gulmarg in March 2020, days before the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic and a resultant lockdown that persisted for several months. With a remarkable decrease in infections and fatalities, all the businesses and political activities have resumed and all the educational institutions are now opening in Jammu and Kashmir. Simultaneously, the high-speed 4-G mobile internet, which remained suspended for 18 months after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and the train services have also been restored.For the first in over six years, Gulmarg is now packed to its capacity and sold out from January 18 to April 18. Bookings have been made by all hues of visitors-local, domestic Indian, foreigners-and no rooms are available for the next two months at any hut or hotel. Gulmarg’s extraordinary promotion and an unusual rush of bookings is, among other factors, attributed to the recent visits of high-profile celebrities like business magnate Anil Ambani and the Bollywood star Sana Khan who was here on her honeymoon trip.While a troupe of filmmakers, producers and directors stayed here for a couple of days to enjoy and explore the possibility of reviving the shooting of the Bollywood movies, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was seen skiing on the picturesque alpine slopes. Some videos of Omar’s skiing went viral, provoking questions in social media over his complaints of ‘house arrest’.Finding no rooms vacant for the Khelo India players, VIPs and guests, the authorities once ordered the hoteliers to cancel their private bookings. However, the order was immediately revoked in the wake of an uproar in the media. “We have made parallel and stand-by arrangements and we are sure that we will accommodate all the guests and players”, said an official.According to the hoteliers, over 900 rooms are available at Gulmarg at the government-owned and the private hotels. “After several years, we now see this highly encouraging tourist footfall at Gulmarg. Unfortunately, we witnessed the worst in the last few of years”, Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, Chairman J&K Hoteliers Club and patron of the PHD Chamber of Commerce in Jammu and Kashmir, said. “We are highly grateful to the government for organizing the Khelo India winter games at Gulmarg in which players from all states across India will participate and will go back as our ambassadors”.PM Modi’s last two visits to inaugurate a number of developmental projects in J&K happened in 2018 and 2019 but he has never visited the region after it became a UT in August 2019. On 19 May 2018, Modi visited J&K, one month before the BJP brought down Mehbooba Mufti’s coalition government. On 3-4 February 2019, Modi’s visit to J&K came just 10 days before the infamous terrorist strike in which 44 CRPF men lost their life on the highway on 14 February. Until now, that is Modi’s last visit to J&K.
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