Is There Light In Sight Towards The Tunnel?
By Meha Dixit
12 February, 2011
Bestowed with a dozen names be it The Last Shangrila, The Moonland, Tibet-e-Khurd, The Broken Moon, Labdaksah, or Peaks of Lamas; Ladakh appears to be a boundless expanse of luminous sandy desert dotted with barren mountains reaching the cornflower blue skies. Aquamarine rivers flow through its quiet landscape exhibiting a quaint charm. Hasan Khan comments, ‘inhabitants of Ladakh spread over an area of more than 60,000 sq. kms live on the mercy of nature’. Brutal winters often accompanied with avalanches and snowstorms incarcerate the people of Ladakh isolating them from the rest of India for over six months.
Ladakh, which is a part of Jammu and Kashmir, comprises of two districts- Kargil and Leh. The 2001 census estimated Ladakh’s population to be approximately 270,126. [update]In Kargil, Shi'a Muslims form the majority of the population. The rest are mainly Buddhists (in the Zanskar valley), and a small minority of Sunni Muslims live in Padum and Dras; while, in Leh, most people are Buddhist with a minority of Shia and Sunni Muslims. Kargil, as compared to Leh, gets even more cut off during winters from rest of the country. While Leh has a well-functioning airport, the airport in Kargil is yet to be utilised for commercial flight service. Poor connectivity (both road and air) has adversely affected Kargil’s health, education and developments sectors. For a long time Ladakhis, especially from Kargil, have been demanding round the year connectivity of this region through the construction of Zojila tunnel. It is the Zojila pass that connects Ladakh with the Kashmir valley near Sonmarg, and was used by Kashmiri traders for trade purposes. Today the Leh-Srinagar road is also connected through Zojila, however harsh winters force this road to close down for over six months in a year.
Nasir Munshi, Councilor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, points out, the isolation of Kargil leads to huge losses in terms of health, education, rural infrastructure and above all sustainability. Munshi observes, during summers, the government and the people get engaged in ‘stocking basic amenities for the winters’. Therefore, time and energy are spent into it and other key development concerns in different sectors are neglected. Hence, it is imperative to improve both the road and air connectivity to Kargil. A tunnel at Zojila will open up Kargil-Leh sector all through the year. According to Hasan Khan, a tunnel at Himachal’s Rohtang Pass is sometimes mistakenly viewed ‘as a means to all-weather road connectivity for Ladakh’. Rotangla tunnel barely has anything to do with winter connectivity to Ladakh.
Javed Naqi, founding member of Kindling Accessibility Initiatives in Ladakh argues, ‘the concerns and demand of people for Zojila tunnel never get any space in both print and electronic media due to Ladakh’s geographical isolation and inaccessibility during winters’. Hence, Kindling Accessibility Initiatives in Ladakh has embarked on a campaign to develop a network of people which focuses on Ladakh’s concerns and the initiative also aims at providing people the space to address grievances regarding Ladakh’s winter isolation and its implications.
Mohammad Ashraf observes, ‘in ancient times the greater Ladakh which encompasses all areas on two sides of the border’ was never really cut off even during the most brutal winters. It was only subsequent to ‘independence that the areas on this side of the border’ got completely blocked during winters. He quips, in general, independence should have led to more freedom for travel, however, sadly ‘the political conflict in the region has completely confined people in their permanent habitats especially in winter’. Ashraf continues, ‘the ancient routes connected Ladakh to Tibet through Demchok; to Yarqand and Kashgar through Karakoram Pass; and to Skardu and beyond through Kargil-Skardu link.’ Besides, there existed ‘a summer link to Kashmir valley’ through the Zojila pass.
Project Himank has carried out a study on the feasibility of a tunnel construction, bypassing the Zojila pass and opening up Srinagar-Kargil-Leh sector all through the year. The tunnel will contribute to the upliftment of local population, boost over all socio-economic development of Ladakh and also fulfill India’s strategic requirement since ladakh happens to share its borders with China and Pakistan and the former’s isolation puts it in a precarious position and is also a security threat to India. The tunnel will also reduce the huge expenditure being incurred on Ladakh’s air maintenance and heavy winter stocking being carried out by civil and army authorities.
Sajjad Bazaz points out, Zojila tunnel project of approximately ‘15 kms in length connecting Ladakh and Kashmir’ was envisaged ‘for free and easy movement of civilian and defence traffic and goods’ particularlyduring the extreme climatic conditions when Kargil remains isolated from the country. He observes, ‘in March 2007, Zojila tunnel having 12 kms length at a cost of Rs.1333.00 crores was approved in principle in Lok Sabha’. The same year even the global tenders were invited for thisproject. However, work on this project has been progressing at a very slow pace. In January 2011, it was reported, the Beacon has taken up the plan to build a tunnel on Srinagar-Leh Highway near Zojila and the project is likely to cost Rs 1500 crores. According to Brigadier T P S Rawat of 22 Brigade at Beacon headquarter Rangreth, ‘the work on the tunnel would be started immediately after the completion of feasibility report in May’ this year.
For decades, Ladakhis, especially from Kargil, have been demanding the construction of Zojila tunnel but merely empty promises have been made by the successive governments. It is hoped this time the work on Zojila tunnel is taken up very seriously, its been almost four years since the Zojila tunnel project was approved yet not much has been done while the Ladakhis continue to bear the brunt of the politics of tunnel construction at Zojila.
Meha Dixit is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a founding member of Kindling Accessibility Initiatives in Ladakh.
Comments are not moderated. Please be responsible and civil in your postings and stay within the topic discussed in the article too. If you find inappropriate comments, just Flag (Report) them and they will move into moderation que.