Jammu and Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, and Leh, the state's Buddhist heartland, will be connected by an all-weather tunnel through Zojila, according to the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRT&H).
The government yesterday approved the construction of a 14.1-km-long two-lane tunnel at Zojila pass, which would provide all weather connectivity to Srinagar, Kargil and Leh in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Zojila tunnel will be the longest bi-directional tunnel in Asia.
“[Its] construction period [will be] seven years because of a very difficult terrain where in some areas temperature dips to minus 45 degree Celsius.
“The tunnel shall be an engineering marvel as the first of its kind in such a geographical area,” said Nitin Gadkari, Road Transport & Highways Minister.
Gadkari said that talks about constructing this tunnel had started 20 years ago.
Situated at an altitude of 11,578 ft on the Srinagar-Leh National Highway, the Zojila pass connects Leh and Ladakh to Kashmir.
However, due the heavy snowfall and avalanches during winter, it remains closed from October to April.
This cuts off the Leh-Ladakh region from Kashmir and other parts of the country.
When operational, the tunnel would bring down the travel time through the Zojila Pass to just 15 minutes, as opposed to the three and half hour duration that it takes at the moment.
The project therefore has strategic and socio-economic importance and shall be an instrument for the development of the economically challenged districts in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Defence forces have to face hard times ensuring supplies to border posts during winters.
“This pass is most strategic for the entire Kargil sector, which has seen intrusion and war in the past,” Gadkari said.
Every year, the government has to augment and store supplies for defence forces and civilians for six months.
The project will be implemented by MoRT&H through National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).
The tunnel is being constructed on a government-funded EPC model. IL&FS Transportation has emerged as the lowest bidder for the project.
On 1 March 2016, MoRT&H ordered “re-bidding” for the project, which had been awarded to IRB Infrastructure.
The decision was taken at a high-level meeting, chaired by Gadkari, after Congress leader Digvijay Singh alleged that guidelines were violated while awarding the contract.
MoRT&H, however, has denied the charges.
Gadkari said that the ground-breaking ceremony for the project will be done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi by May-June this year.
“We understand the plight of the people in Leh and Ladakh region who face severe crisis during winters when they are cut off from the rest of India for six months,” he added.
“We are committed to undertaking the project.”