Zojila Tunnel: India Targets To Finish Asia’s Longest Bidirectional Tunnel Before Deadline
India is digging a tunnel about 11,578 feet (nearly 3,500 metres) above the sea level to provide all-weather connectivity between the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh, a route that remains inaccessible for half the year due to heavy snows.
Once completed, the 14.96-kilometre Zojila bidirectional tunnel will be Asia’s longest. Located on the Srinagar-Leh road, it will shorten the distance between Baltal (Sonamarg) and Minamarg in the Kargil region of Ladakh from 40 km to 13 km. That would slash travel time from three hours to 15 minutes.
The route is strategically important as Ladakh is a frontier region, with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir across the Line of Control towards northwest, and China on the other side of Line of Actual Control to the east.
The project will also provide relief to the people in Kargil, Dras and Leh region, currently connected to the rest of the country though the treacherous Zojila pass.
“My truck overturned in the freezing fog in the Zojila pass area because of heavy snowfall,” Rakesh Kumar, a trucker who carries grains and other items to Leh, told BloombergQuint. “The tunnel will provide us protection from harsh winters and heavy snowfall.”
The Zojila tunnel was first conceived in 2005 and a detailed plan was laid out by the Border Roads Organisation. But the project failed to find any takers under the public-private partnership model because of the harsh terrain.
In 2016, it was handed over to the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corp. of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways. In 2017, IL&FS won the bid to construct the tunnel, and the contract was awarded the following year. But it was terminated later due to the group’s financial stress.
Finally, in October 2020, Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd. began construction at an estimated cost of Rs 4,600 crore. The company said it’s using the new Austrian tunnelling method that allows for ventilation and evacuation.
The company has so far completed 550 metres of digging work. Nitin Gadkari, minister for road transport & highways, has urged the developer to complete the project by 2023, three years ahead of the deadline.
The objective is to ensure round-the-clock connectivity between Srinagar and Leh. The project is divided into two parts:
First, a 6.5-km Z-Morh tunnel (named after the Z-shaped bend) will connect Gagangir and the resort town of Sonamarg. Expected to become operational by next year, this tunnel will make Sonamarg accessible during winters. It’s being developed by Apco Infratech Pvt. at an estimated cost of Rs 2,300 crore.
Once ready, not only will tourism get a boost but the locals will also not have to migrate during the winters.
“Villagers from Shutkudi, Sonamarg, Nilgrar, and Sarbal have been migrating to other towns because of the extreme winters in the region. The tunnel will allow them to stay here,” Shabir Ahmad, president of Sonamarg’s traders association, told BloombergQuint.
“We have to literally shift our entire homes from here to warmer areas. It’s the most difficult moment for us," Ahmad said. "It’s like a big project — winters are coming so we have to relocate from here, and then summers are coming so we have to move back. All our energy gets lost in this.”
Local traders and hotels will also benefit, he said.
The second part of the project is the Zojila tunnel. It will come up 18 km ahead of the Z-Morh tunnel. The road between the two includes 1.95-km twin-tube tunnels. It will be accessible during the winters, protected by avalanche-protection structures such as catch dams, snow galleries, and a deflector dam.
(BloombergQuint was in J&K at the invitation of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways)