Development needs roads to run on and that will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pitch when he visits Ladakh on 19 May. The prime minister will be in the northern frontier state to launch two mega connectivity projects, including the overarching national vision of a tunnel through the Zoji La Pass (11,578 feet) that connects Kashmir Valley with Ladakh.
A tunnel through Zoji La has remained a constant dream for the last several decades. The initial survey for the tunnel was carried out in 1997, but the actual planning had started only after the Kargil war in 1999.
But, early this year, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had given its approval to go ahead with the construction of the much-awaited ₹6,808-crore Zoji La Tunnel project.
Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to lay the foundation stone on 19 May for the Rs 6,808.69-crore project spanning over 14.15 km, which is expected to be completed in 2026.
With the completion of this strategic tunnel, Leh will get all-weather and snow-free road connectivity that will enable traffic to move swiftly and safely between Kashmir and Ladakh.
Currently, the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National Highway 1A remains cut off due to heavy snowfall and avalanches during winters. The most difficult snow-blockade occurs on a small stretch of 25 kilometers between Baltal (on Sonamarg side) and Matayan (on Drass side) at an attitude of above 11,000 ft from sea level.
This will also help defence forces, that face a hard time ensuring supplies to border posts during winters. The Zoji La pass is most strategic for the entire Kargil sector which has seen intrusion and war in the past.
The project aims to build a 14.15-km long two-lane bi-directional single tube tunnel with a parallel 14.2-km long escape tunnel, excluding approaches on Srinagar-Leh section connecting NH-1A at Km 95 (baltal) and at Km 118 (Minamarg).
The project is being implemented by Ministry of Road Transport & Highways through the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL). It will take seven years to complete with a civil construction cost of ₹4,899.42 crore.
It seems the government has approved the lowest bidder, IL&FS Transportation Networks Ltd (which earlier developed the Chenani-Nashri Tunnel), to build the Zoji La tunnel on the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode. IL&FS Transportation and NHIDCL signed an MoU to construct the tunnel on 24 January 2018.
Once completed, the tunnel will be an engineering marvel, first of its kind in such a geographical area and it will be country's longest road tunnel, which will have features such as a cut and cross-ventilation system, fully transverse ventilation system, uninterrupted power supply, CCTV monitoring, variable messaging boards, traffic logging equipment, tunnel radio, and emergency telephone system.
The 14-km long tunnel will reduce the travel time of crossing the Zoji La Pass from 3.5 hours to 15 minutes.
Across the Zoji La, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has already built highways and shining new black tar roads all along the Himalayan borderland, linking the remotest military outposts along the Line of Control (LOC) in the western sector and Line of Actual Control (LAC) facing Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin in Ladakh where the troops of Indian Army and ITBP jawans are posted.
In addition to this, the government has now turned its focus on building a major high-elevation all-weather, snow-free rail axis for connecting Ladakh with rest of the country. The decks are being cleared to build two types of railway links for Leh – Bilaspur-Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Kargil-Leh. The move comes with the commitment to catch up with the rapid infrastructure growth in neighbouring China.
The survey details are going on in full-swing for the first alignment from Bhanupalli Valley in Ambala division to Bilaspur via Manali to Leh. The second alignment, Bilaspur via Pathankot, Jammu, and Srinagar to Leh is also being sanctioned by Indian railways.
The foundation stone of the Bilaspur-Mandi-Leh (BML) sector for the Final Location Survey (FLS) was laid in June this year by former Union Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu. The survey has been delegated to RITES Limited (Rail India Technical and Economic Service), a Railways PSU.
The Detailed Project Report (DPR) is expected to be completed by 2019 at an estimated cost of Rs. 157.77 crore which will be funded by the Defence Ministry. The total cost of construction of 498 km railway line has been calculated at Rs 22,831 crore for building a 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) broad gauge railway track of a total distance of 498 kilometre. The length could go up to 650 km depending on the gradients and the alignment.
The Himalayan railway connectivity is a strategic project. The Leh railway line is one of the 14 strategic connectivity projects initiated by the Ministry of Defence to cover the border areas along China, Nepal, and Pakistan.
The project is of economic, development and tourism importance. It will boost the local economy, especially meeting the needs of ordinary citizens. The biggest spin-off will be the region opening up to better influx for tourism.
BML will connect important locations Sunder Nagar Mandi, Manali, Tandi, Keylong, Koksar, Darcha, Upshi, Karu, Thiksey, Shey, Chiglamsar and Leh. The BML is also expected to catalyse other small railway network projects and even metro services within Leh.
However, the Bilaspur-Mandi-Leh line is not without the challenges in terms of its stability, geology, constructability, maintainability and safety issues. A total distance of 498-kilometer will pass through four major high mountain passes of the Shivalik, Greater Himalayan and Zanskar Ranges with an altitude ranging from (13,000 ft to 17,500 ft), 600 meter to 5,300 meter. The alignment will start with 500 meter elevation in Bilaspur to about 3,215 meter in Leh, crossing Tanglang La (17,480 ft) Baralacha La Pass (16,040 ft), and Lachung La (16,598 ft) on the way.
The alignment will cross seismic zones, avalanche-prone areas, necessitating construction of multiple tunnels, deep viaducts and high bridges – over 60 per cent of the track will pass through tunnel.
BML is going to be India’s most picturesque rail projects with its unique distinction of being the highest railway track in the world, possibly more exciting than the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and it will certainly offer a great trip to behold for the travellers. Taglang La station at 5,359 meter (17,582 ft) is expected to become the highest railway station, overtaking the current record holder, the Tanggula Railway Station in China at 5,086 meter (16,686 ft).
Clearly, improved connectivity would allow Ladakh to exploit its ‘unique’ and diverse potential. Its economic potential is not even thought of. Its colossal water resources of Zanskar, Suru, Dras, Shyok rivers so far only benefit Pakistani farmers in Punjab and Sind, while only five percent of Ladakh's arid land is irrigated. If Article 370 impedes outside investment, the only economic source of tourism remains hostage to poor connectivity.
But the twin projects will prove to be a game-changer for boosting the region’s social, economic, consumer, commercial, industrial and governmental activities. They would spur economic development and tourism industry growth, increase resource efficiency, enhance border safety, and better public service delivery.
It would eventually help enhance people-to-people connectivity so as to leverage the common heritage of the state, specially to explore the potentials of pilgrim tourism in all three regions of the state — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. How to make an alternate route to Kailash Mansarovar through Demchok that will be safer, dependable and shorter would become a reality if the relations with China improve.
Connectivity would also help the country optimise Ladakh’s strategic advantage as a pivot to accessing Central Asia, China, Russia and Mongolia for political, trade and commercial ties.
This is critical in the context of counterpoising China’s epic OBOR/BRI initiative including the CPEC that passes through close vicinity of Ladakh. Clearly, the Chinese forays into Gilgit-Baltistan, albeit on the pretext of CPEC, could have serious adverse implications on Ladakh in the longer term. After completing railway projects in the neighbouring Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese are planning to have trains penetrating the Karakoram Mountains.
India needs a counter-plan and it is for the prime minister to set the stage for exploring Ladakh's strategic value as a gateway for gaining direct access to Tarim Basin and the Tibetan plateau. By doing this both, Kashmir and Ladakh can once again be brought at the centre-stage to become the economic and cultural hubs of India’s connectivity to the north.
India’s engagement with Eurasia has become critical. With India becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), its stakes in Central Asia will increase.
Here, connectivity to Ladakh could offer a bigger strategic perspective and a historic opportunity for India to physically connect with China, Eurasia, Europe and beyond, which could be the kernel not only for broader change and but also beneficial to India’s strategic outreach to the north.
(The author is the President of Ladakh International Centre, Leh and is an expert on Himalayan and inner Asian affairs. He tweets @pstobdan. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)
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