Advance through apathy22 January 2018
The Zojila Pass Tunnel may go ahead, finally, as it received government approval this month. The project is to build an all-weather road route to Jammu and Kashmir, featuring a 14km-long tunnel.
The tunnel was first teased in 2010 by the Indian Ministry of Defence, which pushed the military angle as the pass is a vital link between the Kashmir valley and Ladakh in the far north of the country. At 11,500ft (3,505m) it connects Sonamarg in the Kashmir valley with Drass and is crucial for maintaining supplies for the forces stationed in the region.
In later reports the civilian population was given more importance, as the people there suffer isolation for half of the year during winter – the risk from snow and avalanches being too severe to allow travel.
Then in 2012, the People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti spoke in favour of fasttracking the project. The alignment would run through the pass and Mufti said the tunnel would “unshackle district Kargil from physical and economic constraints.”
And added that political apathy had held back the region, which she identified as having great potential. But fast-tracking was hopeful. Accusations of political corruption marred the project and the USD 1.5bn construction contract was cancelled. The contractor had won as the sole bidder, but the tender period had been extended several times according to a Reuters report at the time.
The news that India’s transport minister Nitin Gadkari cancelled the contract was a particularly painful setback, as it came just after a positive move for infrastructure spending in the country. In the latest budget that year, the government revealed an impressive war chest for transport.
Gadkari was and is seen as a standard bearer for infrastructure investment in India, and has hopefully justified his reputation with the news that the tunnel will indeed go ahead. Construction is expected to begin this year, and the project is expected to take seven years to build according to local media, due to the challenging topographical conditions and the fact that the temperature can drop to -45°C
Although born out of the need for military links to the disputed region, the government is mainly excited about the possibility of linking the region to the broader Indian market.
The Zojila Pass is not a problem that could be solved without tunnelling, which itself could not begin without political will to push the project through, despite the problems that have hit the project before it even broke ground. It is essential to protect the public and political reputation of tunnelling so that we see more success stories, and fewer cancellations.