(One of the reasons for unstable connectivity of the valley in the absence of the traditional Jhelum Valley Road is the missing tunnels on most of the other links going through the surrounding mountains!)
The National Highway NH-1A, the only life line to Kashmir valley has given this year the worst headache during its entire existence. Earlier too it had once broken down during winter for a month or so. That time supplies including medicine and kerosene had to be flown to Srinagar in IAF aircraft. Since the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 which resulted in the J & K state getting divided in two parts, one each with the newly created countries, Kashmir has remained physically isolated especially during winters.
This unnatural partition also closed the only real life line of Kashmir along the Jhelum River known as the Jhelum Valley Road. Prior to partition this had been the main connection of the valley to the outside world. At present a section of the highway from Ramban to Bannihal is being widened to make it a proper highway.
However, the widening of the Road by extensive blasting has destabilized the entire mountain range and massive slides have been coming on the exiting road and quite a few times the stretches of the road have been totally washed down forcing the road builders to make new temporary stretches. Reportedly, the technique adopted for its widening and the procedures followed by the contractors have resulted in massive slides.
Some engineers have opined that the road builders should have first fully stabilized the upper slopes before starting the widening. The other alternative could have been to use the mountain slopes on the other side of the Chenab River either by creating a new road stretch or going in for a series of tunnels.
While talking of tunnels, it may be pointed out that there could be other alternatives for connecting the valley in winter but these are blocked because of absence of tunnels which had initially been incorporated in the projects but were never taken up for some unknown reasons.
The immediate instance is of the Mughal Road constructed along the route even followed by Mughals and practically the easiest and the shortest one apart from the traditional Jhelum Valley Road. A tunnel under the Pir Ki Gali pass which gets blocked due to heavy snowfall would cost Rs. 500 crores.
This tunnel was already a part of the project when it was initiated. In fact, the project had to face many hiccups before it finally materialized. The other route which too could be used in winter and which passes through more solid mountains is the road across the Simthan pass going to Kishtwar. This road too gets blocked during winter due to heavy snowfall on the pass. A tunnel could make it an all-weather year round connection. Again for some unknown reasons construction of a tunnel under Simthan pass has not been considered by the government.
At the present moment the most talked about is the Zoji La tunnel. The province of Ladakh has remained disconnected by surface during winter for ages. Ladakh had always remained a camel caravan destination. It was part of the famous Silk route and there used to be very active trade between Kashmir and Central Asia on Bactrian camel (double humped) caravans. Some of these camels are still in Nubra Valley as a big tourist attraction. Nowhere else in the entire sub-continent can one see these Bactrian camels! The surface road to Ladakh through Zoji La pass was constructed after the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947. The road got a boost after the 1962 India-China war.
The road was subsequently improved and black topped throughout its length making the two week journey to Ladakh on camels and horses to be completed in a day only! However, like other similar roads it was useable in summer only as heavy snow on Zoji la pass would completely close it.
The snow depth has been sometimes recorded as 40 feet or so. Again, a tunnel has been missing here which could have made it an all-weather round the year road. Ladakis have been agitating for this tunnel for a long time as they are truly living in a totally land-locked country especially after the closure of Kargil-Skardu, Leh-Lahasa and Leh-Kashgar routes which used to remain open throughout the year. Recently there was a lot of pomp and show for starting the construction of the Zoji La tunnel.
The work was started but reportedly there was some dispute with the construction company and the project has probably got delayed. However, the work on the first tunnel leading to Sonamarg is reportedly going on. The main Zoji La tunnel had run into some legal problems. It is supposed to be the longest tunnel in Asia.
Tunneling is now a very sophisticated procedure with latest boring devices which can bore through hardest rock granite like cutting butter!The Chinese have very sophisticated boring devices. They have constructed a large number of some very long tunnels.
In Europe they have the Eurostar train going through a tunnel under the Channel between England and France. Italy and France are connected by a 12 km long tunnel under the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. It would have been ideal if this job of tunneling had been assigned to a global firm specializing in the field of tunneling.
The most important tunnel, the Bannihal Tunnel known as Jawahar Tunnel was also constructed by German engineers in early sixties. It has lasted almost 60 years without any major problem. Had this tunnel not been there, Kashmir would have remained cut for six months as used to happen before sixties of the last century. The winter blockade of Kashmir valley as well as Ladakh creates a claustrophobic situation for the local the population.
They feel physically imprisoned which creates many psychological problems apart from physical shortages of all essential supplies. Ending this physical isolation can even help in calming down the overall situation. The authorities should go ahead through some reputed international construction firms to complete all these “Missing Tunnels”! That would be a boon for Kashmir as well as Ladakh!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired) (Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir)