High up on a rocky Himalayan mountain in Kashmir’s Sonamarg, hundreds of people are working on an ambitious project: drilling tunnels and constructing bridges to establish all-weather connectivity between the Valley and Ladakh. This cold-desert region is isolated for half the year due to heavy snowfall.
Strategically important Ladakh shares 900-kms long de facto border with Pakistan and China and currently depends on air supplies for about six months of the year.
Officials say a 6.5-kilometre tunnel, the first of four, is already complete and will make the resort town of Sonamarg accessible during the winter months for the first time. Sonamarg marks the end of conifer-clad mountains before Ladakh begins across the rocky Zojila mountain pass.
The main tunnel which bypasses the deadly Zoji La terrain is Asia’s longest bi-directional road tunnel being built at the length of 13.15 kilometres.
As per the Project Manager, Harpal Singh, six-kilometres of tunneling has been done, with 3-kms on each side.
As per Singh, the Government of India had decided to construct this tunnel in 2005, however, the project was awarded in 2020 even as the work is going on at full pace to counter the China threat.
The tunnel will reduce the 4-hours of travelling time to 20 minutes., increasing the mobility of the Indian troops while cutting down the expenses spent on air supplies during winters.
“We are facing a hostile country which is trying to grab our land, so the road connectivity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where the Indian army is stationed is a must,” explains Singh.
“Wars are often protracted, look at the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it can happen to us, and in that scenario the road connectivity is indispensable,” Singh notes.
However, the major challenge at 3900-metres above the sea-level, Singh says, is to counter the winter.
It’s about how to keep everything warm when the temperatures fall down to minus-30 degree celsius, he says.
Constructing a power grid would have added to the expenses and to the time, so the company uses diesel generator sets to generate electricity.
Additionally, storing the supplies for winters which includes food for over two-thousand men and material for construction is also a challenge, Harpal Singh says.
Unlike tunneling at other places, where deep penetration results in higher temperatures, here the temperature dips further as the workers move forward.
The site of project comes under high-risk avalanche zone, making the job tougher. In January this year, two labourers died after they were buried under a massive avalanche in Sarbal area of Sonamarg, following which, the J&K administration ordered a halt of two months on the project.
As per Harpal Singh, 150 engineers, 900 technicians and over 1000 labourers are working on the project. 75% of these men are locals, Singh said.
The project is expected to finish by September 2026, engineers and officials say.