The newly constructed Chenab Railway Bridge, pictured in March, should help India ensure virtually all-weather access not only to Kashmir but also the Ladakh region near the tense border with China

NEW DELHI: After 15 years of construction, India is just months away from fully opening the world's highest railway bridge in Kashmir -- the latest in a series of infrastructure upgrades meant to integrate the disputed and isolated region into the country as well as enhance defence.

At a height of 359 meters, the Chenab Rail Bridge spanning the river of the same name is 29 meters higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Due to open at the end of December or in January 2024, according to the Ministry of Railways, the government says the connection will help bring Kashmir "prosperity."

It also promises the Indian military major strategic benefits. The bridge should ensure virtually all-weather access not only to Kashmir -- long a focus of animosity between India and Pakistan, which claims the territory -- but also the Ladakh region near the tense border with China.

"It is going to be a real game changer for both military capability and local trade and tourism," predicted a former northern commander of the Indian Army, D.S. Hooda. He said it would help Kashmir residents transport their apples and other products, while giving the army a quick way to move troops and equipment.

"The train can carry 50 times what a truck would carry," Hooda said.

There is only one main highway into Kashmir's principal city of Srinagar. But it is frequently affected by heavy rains and landslides, blocking civilian vehicles as well as military convoys heading toward Kashmir and Ladakh, where hand-to-hand combat in 2020 marked the first deadly clash between the nuclear powers in decades. Thousands of troops remain deployed at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the contentious India-China border.

India is also nearing completion of what it bills as Asia's longest two-way road tunnel at Zojila, connecting Kashmir with Ladakh -- another bid to improve connectivity to remote corners and ease military logistics.

Hooda said the rail bridge will be particularly useful as the national highway is unreliable in winter. "It would be economically a big help for people, and also for the Indian army," said the former commander.

Major Gen. Amrit Pal, a former head of logistics in the army, explained the time savings the bridge should bring.

"If convoys have to go from Jammu to Srinagar they take 12 hours and if it is a logistic convoy it takes 16 hours," he said. "Now that journey will be done in three hours."

Pal added, "Ultimately logistics is all about making the right people reach at the correct time."

The construction of the bridge clearly took into account its military value -- and potential appeal as a target.

The structure is made of special 63 millimetre-thick blast-proof steel, with concrete pillars designed to withstand explosions. The bridge is supposed to be able to tolerate a magnitude-8 earthquake and up to 40-kilogram TNT blasts.

On top of the sturdy build, the government plans to provide a ring of aerial security along with an online monitoring and warning system installed on the bridge itself.

There are precedents for attacks on transport infrastructure in the area. In 2019, a convoy carrying Indian security personnel on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber in the Pulwama district of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Forty officers from the Indian Central Reserve Police Force were killed.

Meanwhile, even before the trains start rolling high above the Chenab River, the buzz about the bridge continues to grow. In June, the site hosted a large International Yoga Day event.

But despite the potential economic benefits of the bridge, some residents in Kashmir are wary of the effort to weave the predominantly Muslim region deeper into the Indian national fabric.

The bridge project has always had multiple aims. Announced in 2002 by then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the government declared it a matter of "national importance," saying it wanted to accelerate the region's socio-economic development while promoting "national integration and India's security infrastructure."

But the timing of the opening -- after Kashmir was stripped of its limited autonomy in 2019 -- is awkward. Policies imposed since then, such as allowing land acquisition by outsiders, has fueled controversy about what exactly "integration" into the Hindu-majority nation means.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, said that from India's perspective, the bridge will clearly enhance security. He also pointed to the likely objective of strengthening India's position at the borders.

"But certainly from the perspective of many in Kashmir, this could be seen as troubling -- just how much the control of the military is pronounced," he said.