New Delhi – To check the growing influence of Pakistan and China in the Ladakh region and facilitate quick mobilisation of troops in case of any incursion from across the border, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone of the Zojila tunnel on 19 May.
The 14.2-km-long tunnel under the Zojila Pass, which remains inaccessible during winters due to heavy snowfall, will provide all-weather connectivity from Baltal in Kashmir to Minamarg near Gumri in Ladakh. The contract for the project has been awarded to IL & FS, which has local area expertise in infrastructure development in the tough terrain.
Located at a height of above 11,000 feet, Zojila Pass is known as the gateway to Ladkah region and connects Kargil and Leh with Srinagar.
Although the tunnel will also make it easier for tourists and locals to cross the often treacherous Zojila Pass, the strategically-located tunnel will be a big asset for the army which will be able to deploy troops to the frontier areas of Ladakh region in no time during emergency. At present, troops and essential commodities have to be sent through air whenever the roads are blocked by heavy snow.
Jammu-based retired Brigadier Anil Gupta says Ladakh is a trans-Himalayan region and to reach there one needs to cross the formidable Zojila Pass in Jammu and Kashmir or Rohtang Pass in the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.
“In case of any eventuality when the passes are closed, it could become difficult for the troops to reach Ladakh region. The reinforcement of soldiers is also difficult with snow on these passes. Zojila tunnel would thus provide quick mobilisation of troops in the region,” says Gupta.
It is this Zojila Pass that was captured by Pakistani invaders during 1947. The pass was later re-captured in November 1948 by Indian forces in a high-altitude battle.
Although locals were demanding construction of the tunnel for a long time, its need was felt only after a series of recent incursions by China and during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. The tunnel project took time because of a lengthy feasibility survey in the geographically-sensitive Himalayan belt and other formal permissions.
Once ready in the next seven years, Zojila tunnel will be India’s longest road tunnel and Asia’s longest bi-directional tunnel. It will help India to check the growing influence of China in the region through its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its increased infrastructural development activities across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which will give the Chinese People’s Liberation Army an upper hand in case of conflict with India.
Ladakh MP Thupstan Chhewang said that on one hand the Zojila tunnel would be an asset for national security and on the other hand it will also make it easy for people of Ladakh to reach other parts of the country even when Zojila Pass is closed due to snow.
Chief executive councillor of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil, Kacho Ahmed Ali Khan, said that during winters flights from Leh are the only way left to move out of the region.
People from Kargil have to first travel to Leh and from there take a flight to Jammu or New Delhi. “However after construction of this tunnel, we can move out of Kargil even during the harsh winter season by road,” Khan said.
The first of its kind in the region, the engineering marvel will cost around Rs 6,800 crore. The tunnel will have all modern technical safety arrangements such as cut and cross ventilation system, two axial fans, fully transverse ventilation system, uninterrupted power supply, CCTV monitoring, variable messaging boards, traffic logging equipment, tunnel radio and emergency telephone system among others.
Defence experts, however, believe that tunnels under Zojila and Rohtang will not be enough to deter China which has better road connectivity on the other side of the Ladakh region.
Nagendra Rao, head of the department of strategic and regional studies at the University of Jammu, recalls that even during the Kargil war, Pakistan had tried to block the national highway leading to Kargil with its advantageous position of troops.
“We needed an alternate route to counter Pakistan’s strategy even at that time. An all-weather route from Manali to Leh would not be complete even after building of Rohtang tunnel as there are some more passes in between and tunnels are required even there.”
Rao said that while India needs to strengthen its infrastructure along LAC with China, the latter has even constructed roads very close to the border in Ladakh. While China can use CPEC for business as well as for security purposes, India lacks even basic road infrastructure along borders in the region, said Rao.