New Delhi, Feb. 18: Three bulldozers skirted the dead 'Red Bridge' and trundled across the bed of a river this morning, a whisker from the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has sent machines and men to make the road motorable enough for the first passengers on the April 7 bus to Muzaffarabad in the other Kashmir.
In engineering terms, the Red Bridge is a Hamilton bridge. For the villagers of Salamabad and Lyalpur near it, the Red Bridge has been a simple mathematical sign, like a minus or a division.
A single lane stretching 45 metres, it is held up by steel girders that make a roof just three metres high. The first buses to head towards Muzaffarabad, in the Kashmir across the LoC, may have to be 30-seaters because the bridge does not give enough headway.
The bridge was built about 60 years ago and was never really designed for heavy traffic. Traffic then comprised country vehicles in a land that was not partitioned. In the 1947 war, it was heavily damaged. But even today, it holds.
Engineers of the BRO who will rebuild it are pondering over options. They have recommended trial runs of the bus from April 1-6.
The options are that the girders of the bridge be cut open or the deck lowered and given more supports. But there may not be enough time for that with just 45 days to go.
A second option is a Bailey Bridge ' the kind used by the army for armoured assaults in an offensive ' giving it a strong base but this will involve some re-engineering of the Red Bridge.
The likely course for now may be a suggestion that India and Pakistan settle on small 30-seaters that can skirt the bridge and drive through the dry river bed till the bridge is made motorable.
Since the Partition of 1947, the Red Bridge over a tributary of the Jhelum has been mistaken for a marker of the LoC. It is not, but its symbolism cannot be understated. A Class 9 single-lane road that leads to it from Uri ends here. The road from the bridge to the LoC ' it is just a dusty pathway ' passes through a minefield some 6 km deep.
Last week, at the BRO headquarters in New Delhi, there was word that the army has cleared a track through the deadly terrain. From this morning, the BRO has begun moving in men and equipment to pave the road till the Kaman Post that overlooks the LoC, 17 km west of Uri.
The Pakistani army has also mined the territory under its control. The first buses between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad will literally drive through minefields.
The road from Srinagar to the LoC is a little more than 100 km long. But it is the 17-km stretch from Uri to the KBK Nullah that cuts through some fascinating country. So far, only the army and, occasionally, members of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan had access. They stopped their vehicles near the Red Bridge and walked it.
There are four bridges in the short 17 km stretch from Uri that passes between the army posts named Rustam and Chinar and ends at Kaman Post. Built in 1890, the road has been in disuse for half its age. The new road builders say it will take only about Rs 3 crore to revive it in 45 days. A black-top road will take four months and Rs 12 crore.