In the backdrop of whatever happened in Galwan valley in Ladakh recently, the focus has again come on the strategic roads and tunnels India is building for faster mobilization of the troops to the arid desert where China has been making all attempts of domination.
Where is Ladakh located? This question arises in the minds of many Indians living in far South, East or Western Indian states. The only image that captures their minds after they listen the name of the arid desert is that of Pangong Tso lake.
The region has a strategic location with its boundaries touching Pakistan on its western side in Kargil district and China on the Eastern edge in Leh district. The Union Territory of Ladakh is accessible from the UT of J&K as well as from Himachal Pradesh.
However what poses a major challenge before the security forces is the lack of connectivity – be it tunnels or roads that lead to Ladakh from both the routes making the terrain difficult and inhospitable for the troops who may have to be deployed in the region on emergency basis.
One such connecting route goes through treacherous Zojila pass located in high mountains situated at an altitude of more than 11500 feet. The road from Srinagar to Leh leads through this pass but it takes a long journey from both sides in absence of a tunnel.
While the foundation stone for the Zojila Tunnel was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2018, the work on the strategic project has so far not started due to technicalities involved in the project and its high cost.
People from Ladakh were demanding a tunnel through Zojila pass since long. It would not have solved only the strategic purpose of military but also of the local populace of Leh and Kargil who have to remain cut-off for more than five months every year due to lack of all season road connectivity.
Union government has been floating the tender for construction of a two tube tunnel under the Zojila pass for long time but due to technical issues involved, no company is ready to complete the prestigious project that is important for India.
A 14 Km tunnel under Zojila will start from Baltal in Kashmir region and will lead upto Gumri in Ladakh region. Initially in 2018, the project was handed over to IL & FS company that was entrusted with the responsibility to complete it. However due to financial issues company left in between and the tenders have been recently floated again.
Experts believe that while it was appreciable that roads and bridges were being constructed in Ladakh for quick mobilization of the soldiers, it was still a question as to how these soldiers will instantly reach Ladakh when there is no direct all season connectivity to Ladakh from rest of the country.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is working on the revised estimated cost of the project that is nearly Rs 8000 crore for which some design changes are also underway in the project to thwart rise of cost. Zojila tunnel will be the longest two directional tunnel of Asia that would provide year round access to Ladakh region.
During the snow, people of Kargil have to face more problems as they first have to travel to Leh from where they take flights to reach other parts of the country as no road connectivity is available for them. Zojila tunnel will provide them more relief.
The tunnel could also to some extent counter the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through the Karakoram pass and could help Chinese and Pakistanis mobilize their armies against India anytime.
However it will not only be the Zojila tunnel that will be a route from J&K to Ladakh but the government has already begun work on another strategic Rohtang tunnel in Himachal Pradesh. The tunnel is being built at a fast pace and would be an asset for the Indian army in coming time.
Both Zojila and Rohtang tunnels besides their strategic importance will also be helpful in saving the cost of transportation to Ladakh region every year.