Editorial | The Zoji La Tunnel

The demand for connecting Ladakh to the Kashmir Valley for round the year transportation of people and supplies had been there for a very long time. Last year the Prime Minister himself inaugurated the start of the work on the Z-Morh tunnel which forms part of the 14.6 kilometre tunnel which is the longest road tunnel in the country at an altitude of 11,875 feet above sea level. The cost of the project was estimated to be Rs 6,809 crores. It was supposed to be longer than the famous Mont Blanc tunnel under the highest mountain in Europe connecting France and Italy.

The start of work on the tunnel had generated tremendous hopes among the population of Ladakh as they would get a year round surface connection to the outside world. Their earlier connections were to Tibet and Baltistan which got snapped after the partition of the sub-continent and the eruption of conflict in the erstwhile State of J & K between the two newly created countries.

As the misfortune has it, the work got stopped because the company IL & FS (Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services) ran into trouble. The company totally slowed down the work and the government through the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation had to ultimately cancel the contract and forfeit their bank guarantee of Rs 122 crores. It seems the corporation had been fully aware about the scope of work of such difficulty in a very tough terrain.

They should have normally allotted the work to some global consortium undertaking such huge projects in extremely difficult terrain. There are so many agencies which have even constructed a tunnel under the English Channel for a Railway connection between England and France. In Kashmir itself, we have had an international Swedish consortium SKANSKA construct the Lower Jhelum (Uri) power project in the early nineties which was supposedly the most disturbed time in the valley. They completed the project in time which has even withstood an earthquake of 7.5 on Richter scale in 2005 that almost totally destroyed nearby Muzaffarabad! The work on the tunnel is supposed to be re-tendered. It is not known whether this has been done.

Keeping in view the past experience, it would be advisable to involve some global agencies if the work has to be completed in the shortest possible time and on global standards. Incidentally, a Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the State High Court about the tunnel. Let us hope serious thought is given to the suggestion while re-tendering so that the prestigious project does not end as an empty promise!