THE GOVERNMENT wants its showpiece infrastructure project in Kashmir, the Zojila tunnel, to be inaugurated before 2024 general elections, asking the contractor to speed up work by about three years.
“They are supposed to complete it by September 2026. I have asked them to finish it by December 2023 so that the Prime Minister can inaugurate it before Republic Day of 2024. It’s a challenge I know, but I’m confident they can do it on time,” Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said during an inspection of the Zojila tunnel’s West portal in Baltal in Kashmir pm Tuesday. “Obviously, we would want it to be finished before the elections.”
The 14.5 km Zojila tunnel, which will be Asia’s longest bi-direction tunnel at a height of more than 11,500 feet, will provide all-weather, perennial connectivity between Kashmir and Ladakh, which is otherwise hampered for winter months as the ancient Zojila pass is covered in snow and avalanches.
From the strategic point of view, the tunnel, which is being built at a cost of more than Rs 4,600 crore, is a critical asset for the armed forces.
Gadkari gave the instruction on early completion to Krishna Reddy, managing director of Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited, who accompanied the minister to the tunnel.
“This does not mean that we will compromise with quality. True, building something like this in the Himalayas is not easy. But I’m sure they can do it,” Gadkari said.
Connectivity is one of the areas the NDA government has been working on in its efforts to win over the people and overhaul the socio-economic condition of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the two Union Territories carved out of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state. There are plans for 20 tunnels in Jammu and Kashmir and 11 tunnels in Ladakh. Road projects worth around Rs 1 lakh crore are currently in progress in the region.
Gadkari said there are plans are to pump in projects worth another Rs 1 lakh crore by 2024.
“The condition of the people is very sad when during winters they are cut off, with no supplies, no medical aid, no business. With these all-weather connectivity projects, the region will prosper,” he said. He described the connectivity projects, mainly consisting of tunnels, as the region’s “heartline”.
He said up to 4,000 local people have been given employment in the construction of the two tunnels on the crucial Srinagar-Leh highways – Zojila and Z-Morh near Sonmarg.
The Zojila tunnel itself will get an upgrade, as plans are afoot to build an escape tunnel along the main tunnel, which will increase the cost. Currently, it is a single-tube tunnel. Gadkari said the paperwork is in process in his ministry. “Instead of building one more tunnel 25-30 years later [when traffic demand increases], it is better to build it now and save the money,” he said.
Through the tunnel, the travel time will be reduced from the current 3.5 hours through the pass to a 15-min drive, as per official estimates.
Gadkari has also pitched for locals to get trained in various skills in tourism and hotel management to brace for the tourism boom that the government envisages thanks to the connectivity benefits. “In three years, tourism will grow five times here. I have told the L-G of Ladakh that like Davos, there can be snow sports, adventure tourism etc. I have asked him to make a project and send me,” he said.
Gadkari’s ministry, which also got the mandate to develop cable cars and ropeways, will also develop these to aid tourism covering seven lakes and a glacier.
The minister on Tuesday also instructed officials to plant local flowers along the new highways being laid and also create wayside amenities showcasing local culture and cuisine by locals. “This will give business to local nurseries,” he said.
The tunnel, with 18 km of approach roads on both sides, will have three vertical shafts, fully lit, automatic fire alarm and control system along with total CCTV coverage– all linked to a SCADA centre.