A view of the Zoji La Tunnel (currently under construction) that will connect Sonmarg to Drass
New Delhi: It takes over three hours to traverse the 62 km from Sonmarg in Jammu and Kashmir to Drass town in the Union territory of Ladakh. Two years from now, the journey is expected to take just 15 minutes. The Zoji La tunnel, now being bored through the solid Himalayan rock, will ensure year-round connectivity between Srinagar and Leh. During winters, heavy snowfall cuts off connectivity for as many as six months of the year.
The 14.5-km-long tunnel will be Asia’s largest bi-directional tunnel when it is completed. It will eclipse the record held by the 10.89-km-long Chenani-Nashri tunnel, also in J&K. The tunnel bores a semi-circular path into a mountain, 9.5 m wide and 7.57 m high. The western end of the tunnel is at Baltal and the eastern portal at Minamarg.
An all-weather road has enormous strategic significance as well. It allows the army to rush troops and equipment towards the disputed frontier with China round the year. During the nine-month standoff with China, which began last year, army engineers worked hard to keep the snowbound Zoji La open.
This Rs 4,600 crore tunnel is just one piece of the mammoth central infrastructure push in the works for J&K. Work on the tunnel resumed in May 2021 after a pause of six years since the earlier concessionaire on the project, IL&FS (Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services), went bankrupt. A big part of the work has been completed in the past six months—550 m of the tunnel has been constructed. With three ventilator shafts, the tunnel begins at 2,900 m and goes up to 3,300 m. The tunnel deadline was brought forward from 2026 to 2023. Union roads and highways minister Nitin Gadkari, at a press meet at the site of the Zoji La tunnel, while advancing the deadline, said: “We don’t have the word impossible in our dictionary—the word itself means I am Possible.” Gadkari was sharing the stage with P.V. Krishna Reddy, MD of the Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited, one of the builders of the tunnel. Megha Engineering had emerged as the lowest bidder for the project, after several tenders were floated and rejected.
Evidently Gadkari and the Narendra Modi government want to showcase their infrastructure story before the next general election in 2024. The Zoji La tunnel is also the Union government’s showpiece project for the region. Central infrastructure projects worth Rs 1.40 lakh crore are planned for the region to improve connectivity with the rest of the country.
The list of projects to be completed by 2022 includes two new highways in the Jammu-Kargil-Srinagar-Leh stretch. Until 2014, the total length of national highways in J&K was 1,695 km, which has been expanded to 2,664 km; an additional 969 km of new national highways have been announced. Two crucial corridors are under works in J&K—the Jammu-Srinagar corridor and Srinagar-Leh corridor.
Among these projects is the 670-km-long Delhi-Katra expressway. It is expected to reduce the Delhi-Katra distance from 727 km to 588 km and the journey time from 14 hours to six. The Delhi-Amritsar journey time is expected to drop by half to 4 hours. The expressway will be ready in two years.
“The mountains of Zoji La-Kargil are prettier than the ones at Davos,” Gadkari said while reviewing the progress of the tunnel in Baltal on September 28. A connecting tunnel from Z-Morh on NH1 to the Zoji La tunnel will be built in the Zoji La ghats between Sonmarg and Kargil. The development and expansion of the 18.4 km highway between Z-Morh and Zoji La is also on. The highway will have two twin tube tunnels, five bridges and two snow galleries. Of the 18 km, a 3 km stretch will be expanded; the rest will be newly developed.
The promise of these massive infrastructure projects is that they will provide avenues of employment for locals, increasing connectivity to the remote parts of J&K, which are otherwise out of bounds for nearly six months in a year due to inclement weather and snow. The tunnels and highways are expected to boost tourism, adventure sports, foster entrepreneurship and skill development. Gadkari has urged hoteliers and tour operators in the area to train the youth of Kashmir for hospitality-related sectors.
J&K’s economy is primarily based on agriculture and services. J&K’s GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) touched Rs 1.76 lakh crore in 2020-21 and the estimated per capita income was at around Rs 92,000 for the financial year 2019. The economy heavily relies on tourism, handicrafts and fruits.
Regarding the funding for the projects, Gadkari said the monies have been allocated as part of the budget and funding infrastructure projects in the region will not be a concern as the Union finance ministry has assured him of constant support. The total budget for J&K was about Rs 88,911 crore in 2019-20, less than the total infrastructure budget planned by the Centre.