Ramban, Oct 23: The 10-km road stretch from Digdol to Maroog resembles an old fortress, with some retaining walls intact and others in a dilapidated condition. There is an approach road too but the stretch ends with a 90-degree cliff- effectively leading to nowhere.
Not just this, there are several road stretches which have been partially built and abandoned – after the NHAI - with the wisdom of hindsight - decided to realign the ambitious four-laning Srinagar-Jammu National Highway project, not before wasting Rs 800 crore and three years’ time.
In 2015, the Cabinet Committee on Economic affairs chaired by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the four laning of the treacherous highway, the only major surface link between the Kashmir valley and the rest of the country. This included the 40-kms Udhampur-Ramban stretch and the 36-km unreliable terrain between Ramban and Banihal.
The Udhampur-Ramban sector project was initially valued at 1709.99 crores and was then revised to 2233.65 crores. Around 55% work on the project has been completed till date.
However, the Ramban-Banihal expanse, initially valued at 2168.66 crores was first revised to 2885.35 crores under which, road-widening was executed at many spots along the stretch.
But after the realignment plan for the stretch - proposed and approved in 2021 - National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) ordered halting of earlier work, thereby wasting the precious time, man-power, machinery and money spent on the project.
Before the project was abandoned, Rs 800 crores were already spent with 70% work completed as per the earlier plan, top sources involved in the construction told Greater Kashmir.
Hindustan Construction Company or the HCC started working on the project in December 2015 and after spending Rs 350 crores sublet the project to CPPL, which spent Rs 450 crores, said an HCC official.
NHAI had first approved Rs 1700 crores for the sector, however, the amount was later reduced to 1100 crores, the official added.
Now, the realignment is valued at Rs 3800 crores, said NHAI’s Project Director for Jammu division supervising the Ramban-Banihal sector, Parshottam Kumar Phonsa.
Curiously, HCC, which was first awarded the contract for the four-laning project, had proposed tunneling of vulnerable stretches, citing loose rock formation of the mountains.
Not just HCC, the Ramban district administration had also between Nashri and Banihal. The then Additional Deputy Commissioner Ramban had shot a letter (no. 957-64/ACQ/NH1A, dated March 16, 2017) stating that the execution work of four laning of National Highway was being done in the hilly, fragile and slide prone area.
However, the NHAI ignored the suggestion and asked the company to go ahead with the road widening project, said an HCC official.
On the contrary, Mr. Phonsa believes the HCC’s proposal “was improper and suggested tunneling at only a few places.” And among those places a couple of spots didn’t even require tunneling. These spots, he said, were developed through road-widening.
What happens to the abandoned roads constructed as per previous plan, Mr Phonsa quips: “These roads will be used by locals and Heavy Motor vehicles.”
The realignment plan consists of 5 tunnels, 33 culverts, 13 via-ducts, 11 minor bridges, and three underpasses to “bypass the deadly stretches.”
As per Mr. Phonsa, the realignment project has been allotted to four different companies including TATA, CEIGALL India Limited in joint venture with Patel Engineering Limited and DRA for the balancing of the realignment.
The physical progress of realignment as per Mr. Phonsa is: 0% for Package 1, 1.5% for Package 2 and 5% for Package third till date.
CEIGALL India Limited is constructing 6.6 km Makarkoot-Silar (Sherbibi) via-duct over Nallah Bishlari valued at Rs 450 crores including GST and two-tube Digdol-Khooni Nallah tunnel measuring 6.2 kms valued at Rs 800 crores without GST, Company’s Project Manager Bhim Sen Chodhary told Greater Kashmir.
He said out of four via-ducts, No.1 and No.2 are 30% complete with No.3 and No.4 still in the “drawing phase.”
DMR, which is constructing 775 metres Mehar-Cafetaria Morh (Ramban) twin-tube-tunnel valued at Rs 371 crores say 50-metres of one tube are completed with micro-filing also going on “for stability.”
The company is also executing the construction of four bridges including the strategic Dalwas Bridge near Nashri and a Cut & Cover tunnel of 570 metres near Mehar.
Started in April this year, DMR’s Project Manager Jitendra Mishra says that they expected the work to be completed “by the end of 2023.”
“The soil here is class five, the lowest of the quality, necessitating digging and rib-caging the tubes simultaneously,” Mishra says.
As per Gammon India, which is constructing Ramban Bypass and Two tunnel tubes at Chanderkote, 900 metres of tunneling work has been completed. While 700 metres of Ramban Bypass are finished, 800 metres are yet to be worked upon.
Bipin Singh, Project Manager Gammon India says that work on the Chanderkote tunnel was delayed because “transporters didn’t agree to drop material at the spot required and that the company had to use our own trucks for the job.”
Regarding the Ramban Bypass, Singh says that they had to face impediments in the form of local population and the forest department who didn’t allow them to fill the river Chenab in order to build a platform.
“Laying a platform over the river is necessary, otherwise how will our workers construct the pillars,” asks Singh. He, however, said that the issue with the locals and the forest department is now resolved and that the work has resumed.
“It will take three months to fill the river along the banks near Markazi Jamia Masjid area and build a platform,” he said, adding “the work is expected to be completed by the end of December 2022.”
While as per the companies involved in the major part of the construction, the bellies of the treacherous and the lethal mountains would be through.
However, NHAI expects the realignment work to be completed by 2025, Mr. Phonsa says.
Subletting blamed for slow progress
When the project was commissioned in 2015, the Central government had set 2018 as the deadline for its completion. Then revised to 2019, then to December 2021.
The project has missed several deadlines so far, mainly due to abandoning of the earlier work and tough terrain.
As part of the realignment approved in 2021, there are three separate deadlines set for the construction companies.
“We had to replace locally hired labourers with workers from West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, for they are well capable of executing the job that requires working at heights,” said Bhim Sen Chodhary, Project Manager at Ceigall India Limited.
He said that local workers left early for home and arrived late in the morning which also slowed down the work. “It was easy for them to get back home, so they remained in a hurry,” he claimed.
“One cannot guess the size of the rocks rolling downhill during rains, necessitating halting of the work and all the focus is drifted towards protection and clearing the highway blocked by those rocks,” said Bipin Singh, Project Manager Gammon India.
Several construction engineers Greater Kashmir spoke to believe that the subletting of contracts by the approved companies was the major reason behind the slow progress while they also claim that it affects the quality of the work.
“These companies are not under the NHAI’s radar and fear no action from them, thus, they freely compromise on the speed and the quality of the work,” claimed a construction official.
These companies, the construction official said, further allot work to the local contractors and with not so sophisticated machinery, local contractors are unable to execute the work at a proper speed.
“The lack of an adequate inspection is a major reason behind the quality and the slow progress along the stretch,” said Bhim Sen Chodhary.