Gadkari initiates first blasting for Zojila tunnel construction

The first phase of blasting for construction of Zojila tunnel was carried out on both sides – Kargil and Ganderbal – on the Srinagar-Leh highway on Thursday.

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways (RTH), Nitin Gadkari virtually initiated the blasting which marked the commencement of work on Asia’s longest 14.5 km long Zojila tunnel being built up on the strategic Srinagar-Leh highway.

MoS in PMO, Dr Jitender Singh, MoS RTH Gen. (Retd) V K Singh, Lieutenant Governor J&K, Manoj Sinha, Lieutenant Governor Ladakh, R K Mathur, MP Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, Deputy commissioner Kargil Baseer ul haq Chaudhary, senior officials of the ministry for RTH and NHDCL attended the ceremony through video conferencing.

Divisional Commissioner Kashmir P K Pole, Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal Shafqat Iqbal, SSP Ganderbal Khalil Poswal and officials of NHDCL and MEIL attended the ceremony at Nilgrath Sonamarg in Ganderbal district.

Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone of the project in May 2018. However, in 2019, the project contract awarded to IL&FS Transportation was terminated as the company abandoned the project due to its financial problems.

The Centre, thereafter, decided to build the project in Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) mode instead of the “hybrid annuity model” as it had planned earlier.

The government invited fresh bids for building the Zojila tunnel and a road from the under-construction Z-Morh Tunnel to the proposed Zojila Tunnel in June this year and the work was awarded to Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited (MEIL), which had emerged as the lowest bidder for the job quoting rate of Rs 4400 crore, official sources said.

A senior official of NHDCL told Greater Kashmir that the Union Minister carried out the first blasting for the project, simultaneously from two portals including eastern portal of main Zojila tunnel at Menamarg from Drass side and eastern portal of Nilgrath tunnel near Sonamarg in Ganderbal district.

The minister on the occasion said that the project held strategic significance as Zojila Pass was situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National Highway and remained closed during winters due to heavy snowfall.

“At present it is one of the most dangerous stretches in the world to drive a vehicle and this project is also geo-strategically sensitive,” he said, adding that the tunnel would provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar valley and Leh (Ladakh plateau) on NH-1, and will bring about an all-round economic and socio–cultural integration of Jammu & Kashmir.

The minister exuded confidence that the strategic project will be completed ahead of schedule and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the tunnel before next Lok Sabha elections.

“It is a moment of pride for India. I am confident that it will be completed in four years and the Prime Minister will inaugurate it before the code of conduct for the next Lok Sabha elections,” the minister said. The project has a completion schedule of six years.

He said the re-modelling of the project has resulted in savings to the tune of over Rs 4,000 crore to the public exchequer without any compromise on safety, security and quality.

He said that it will also be of great importance to the defence of the country.

He assured formation of committees under LG Leh and LG J&K with respective Chief Secretaries and officers of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) to oversee tunnel work and to sort out local issues.

Gadkari informed that seven tunnels are under construction in the Jammu and Kashmir region. He said, construction of the 8,450-metre-long twin-tube tunnel between Qazigund and Banihal will be completed by the coming March. The work on 2,968-metre-long 6-single tunnels between Ramban and Banihal is due for completion in December 2021.

Further, the 450-metre-long tunnel between Khilani and Kishtwar will be ready by June 2022.

The Minister further informed that DPRs (detailed project reports) have been completed for the 4.5-km-long Chenani-Anantnag tunnel, the 10.2-km-long tunnel at Sinthan Pass at a cost of Rs 4,600 crore, the Rs 350-crore Khakhlani Byepass tunnel, and the 10-km-long tunnel between Chhatru and Anantnag at a cost of Rs 5,400 crore and tenders for these will be out shortly.

MoS-RTH Gen (Retd) Dr V K Singh, speaking about the tunnel project under Zozila Pass said, he has travelled on this stretch, and is aware of difficulties faced by the people there. He said, the tunnel will also improve coordination between the UT Administrations of Ladakh and J&K.

The Minister suggested formation of a separate agency for tunnels, like NHAI or NHIDCL, to work for both road and rail networks.

LG of Ladakh, Radha Krishna Mathur complemented the efforts of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for adapting to the changed scenario due to repeated changing of contractors. He said, this tunnel will go a long way to develop the Leh region.

MoS in PMO Dr Jitender Singh also addressed the event and highlighted the importance of the Zojila tunnel.

‘Turning Point’ for JK, Ladakh

Meanwhile, LG, Manoj Sinha termed the ceremonial blasting of Zojila Tunnel as a ‘turning point’ for the UTs of J&K and Ladakh, which he said will not only make the emotional connections of regions to a new level but will also provide physical connectivity throughout the year.

Speaking on the occasion of the ceremonial blasting for the construction of the project through virtual mode, the LG expressed his heartfelt gratitude to PM Narendra Modi, and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari for the beginning of work on the ambitious project.

The Lt Governor, an official handout said, hoped that after completion of the project in December 2023, Sonamarg in Ganderbal district would receive and attract more winter tourism. It was informed that the project has been planned on the European Model.

The Lt Governor said that work on the approach road to the tunnel is expected to be completed within 30 months while the tunnel itself will take around 72 months to complete.

‘The tunnel will add to the socioeconomic and cultural growth of the region and will address our strategic needs’, observed the Lt Governor.

‘The tunnel will not only provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Leh but will also reduce travel time from three and a half hours to only 15 minutes’, claimed the Lt Governor.

In connection with the project, 5 brides, 6 catch dams, 13 deflector dams, 8 cut and covers, 2 snow galleries, and 8 blast walls will also be constructed to provide avalanche protection between Sonamarg and Baltal. Exhaustive research and planning have been done while designing the project which includes manual fire alarm, portable fire extinguisher, automatic fire detection system, etc.

The tunnel will ensure year-round logistic support to the region and supply of essential commodities, Lt Governor added.

‘I always believe transport infrastructure is the most important element for holistic development and overall growth of a region and it brings territorial integrity. I am confident, Zojila Tunnel, will ensure enhanced business activities and will transform the areas where so far we have seen less development activities’, said the Lt Governor. ‘It will facilitate the trade and movement of the workforce throughout the year between the two Union territories’, the Lt Governor concluded.