Kargil may soon get country’s highest tunnel

By Binoo Joshi, IANS,

Jammu : Residents of the strategically important Kargil and Leh regions in Jammu and Kashmir have a reason to be happy. Their six-decade-long wait for round-the-year road connectivity with the rest of India may end soon with the construction of a 12 km-long tunnel – thanks to the personal interest of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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The project is part of efforts to improve access with the country’s far-flung strategic border areas, from the northwest to the northeast, to facilitate movement of men and material in case of conflict and other emergencies.

Officials of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) are preparing a feasibility report for the construction of the tunnel at the Zojilla mountain pass that will be India’s highest.

Qamar Ali Akhoon, minister of consumer affairs and public distribution, told IANS: “We have received a letter from the prime minister that the feasibility report would be ready by October this year.”

“Thereafter it would be for the engineers to show their skills and technology to demonstrate its advancement,” added Akhoon, who also represents the Kargil constituency in the Kashmir assembly.

The project is estimated to cost Rs.1,300 crore. The centre has assured the state government that “money would not be a constraint for this project once the feasibility report (work on which started in September last year) is complete by October-end,” Akhoon said.

It will be the highest in the country at 11,000 feet and will reduce the travel time between Srinagar and Kargil by at least three hours.

Zojilla remains closed for almost six months because of heavy snowfall during winter. It records more than 20 feet of snowfall on an average during the winter months, which means virtually no road connection with the world for the people of Kargil. Since there are no air services between Kargil and other parts of the world, people remain cut off and reel under sub-zero temperatures.

A senior official of the BRO that looks after the maintenance of the first 150 km of a 434-km Srinagar-Leh highway, which passes through Kargil, told IANS: “Our work is in progress. The soil testing has been done and the delineation of the tunnel has also been prepared.”

The assistance of foreign experts is also being sought.

“Not only would it ensure round-the-year traffic, it would also bring the people physically and psychologically closer to the outside world,” Zainab, a resident of Zanskar in Kargil, told IANS.

Kargil hopes to throw its tourist places on the tourist map of Kashmir with new vigour once the tunnel work starts. “The tunnel in the Himalayas would in itself be a tourist attraction,” the minister said.

Kargil has a population of around 125,000 and is also critical for the Indian defence lines with Pakistan-administered Kashmir and China. The proposed tunnel, if constructed, would also help the Indian Army ferry men and machinery to the frontier round the year.

Kargil came to national attention when Pakistani soldiers intruded into Indian territory crossing the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan in 1999. A 50-day-long war was fought by the Indian and Pakistani armies, and finally Indian soldiers had succeeded in pushing Pakistani soldiers to their side of the LoC.

(Binoo Joshi can be contacted at [email protected])