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Explained: The Ladakh bridge on the world’s highest road

With the inauguration of this bridge along with 26 other projects around the country, 2021 marked a record for BRO, which completed 102 projects in the year.

Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh dedicates to the nation 102 roads and bridges, made by Border Road Organisation, at South Block, New Delhi, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. (PTI Photo)

On Tuesday (December 28) Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 27 projects built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which included 24 bridges and three roads, most of which are in the border areas.

One of the 24 bridges is on what has now become the world’s highest motorable road, passing through a pass situated at an elevation of 19,000 feet.

What is this new road, and what is its importance?

The Road

The road is in south Ladakh, connecting Chisumle and Demchok. It passes through a pass known as Umling La, which is at a height of over 19,000 feet.

The height of the pass makes it the highest motorable road in the world, and was recently recognised as such by Guinness World Records.

The 52-km road ‘black-top’ tarmac road from Chisumle to Demchok betters the previous record of a road in Bolivia, which connects the volcano Uturuncu at 18,953 feet. The road in Ladakh was built under extremely challenging conditions, as temperatures in the region can fall to below minus 40 degrees Celsius, and oxygen levels go down to 50 per cent below normal.

What the Defence Minister inaugurated on Tuesday, however, was not the entire road, but one of the bridges on the road, which completed the axis. The 60-metre bridge has been built at the point called Km 99.3 on the road.

The Pass

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According to officials in the defence establishment, vehicles had been crossing the Umling La pass for at least the last four years. However, the road at the pass has now been black-topped, making the journey easier, and qualifying it for the Guinness World Record honour.

The BRO had mentioned in August that the road had been black-topped through Umling La at 19,300 feet. It had said that the road connected towns in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh, providing a direct route between Chisumle and Demchok from Leh.

Top of the world

At the pass, the road is higher than both the base camps for the climb to Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. The South Base Camp in Nepal is at a height of 17,598 ft, while North Base Camp in Tibet is at 16,900 ft. The Chisumle-Demchok road is also higher than the Siachen Glacier, which is situated at 17,700 feet.

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Khardung La in Leh, which at one time was among the highest roads in the world, is at an altitude of 17,582 feet.

The significance

The project to build the road through the pass — a part of BRO’s Project Himank — had been completed in 2017, after which vehicles had started plying on the route. However, the road has been black-topped only this year.

The most important aspect of this new axis, however, comes with the completion of the bridge that was inaugurated by the Minister. As the axis is now complete, it provides a direct route from Chisumle, which lies on the major road coming from Leh, Karu and Nyoma — all of which have important military stations — to Demchok, which is close to the Line of Actual Control.
Why Demchok matters

Demchok has been an India-China flashpoint earlier, the site of a standoff between the two armies in 2016. In the current standoff in eastern Ladakh, which began in May 2020, Demchok has come up as a point of contention. According to Indian officials, some “so called civilians” have erected tents on the Indian side of Charding Nala in the area, which means they are on the Indian side of the LAC. The issue is yet to be resolved.

How the road helps

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The new axis will be helpful for the armed forces, making it easier to mobilise troops and equipment, including rations. However, since the road goes through such a high pass, road transport will be unfeasible during the winter, when the armed forces rely on air support.

The road is expected to have other advantages too. Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday that it will “not only enable faster movement of armed forces to the region but will also boost tourism and improve the socio-economic condition of the local people in the region”.

Other BRO projects

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With the inauguration of this bridge along with 26 other projects around the country, 2021 marked a record for BRO, which completed 102 projects in the year.

Besides the Umling La road, one of the “most important of the roads being dedicated to the nation” Singh inaugurated another important bridge this week, also close to an area of conflict between India and China.

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This 140-foot double-lane modular Class 70 bridge built on Flag Hill on Dokala Road at a height of 11,000 feet, provides an alternative axis to the India-China-Bhutan trijunction near the Doklam Plateau,which was the site of the over-70-day standoff between India and China in 2017.

Singh had inaugurated 75 projects of the BRO in June: 63 bridges across eight states and Union Territories, and 12 roads. Most of these projects are near India’s international borders, with a bulk of them in close proximity to the India-China border.

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China had, in fact, objected to India’s infrastructure build-up close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2019, before the current standoff began.

First published on: 31-12-2021 at 18:06 IST
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