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India hastens to build strategic tunnel amid China conflict

Samaan Lateef Srinagar
November 15, 2021

Hundreds of workers are racing to finish what officials say will be India's longest and highest tunnel connecting Kashmir Valley with Ladakh, which shares de facto borders with Pakistan and China.

Construction work at Zojila Pass
The tunnel is expected to open to the public on January 25, the eve of India's Republic Day, in 2024Image: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

India is ramping up efforts to build the strategic Zojila tunnel in Indian-administered Kashmir, aiming to reduce travel time to Ladakh, where China is increasingly pushing its territorial claims along the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India has developed a network of tunnels, bridges and roads in Ladakh to allow for a rapid mobilization of troops in the hostile high-altitude region — where temperatures dip as low as -45 degrees Celsius (-49 F).

The tunnel, the mass infrastructure project's last, will pass through Zojila in Indian-administered Kashmir to Sonamarg, which marks the end of conifer-clad mountains before Ladakh begins across the rocky Zojila mountain pass.

Officials say the Zojila tunnel, expected to cost $932 million (€815 million), will be India’s longest and highest tunnel, at 11,500 feet (3,485 meters).

The tunnel would not only allow the Indian Army more flexibility in handling logistics — it would also reduce the travel time on Zojila Pass from 3.5 hours to 15 minutes.

The horseshoe-shaped, single-tube bidirectional tunnel would also decrease the distance from Baltal to Minamarg from 40 kilometers (25 miles) to 13 kilometers, said P Arun, deputy general manager execution of Megha Engineering & Infrastructures Limited, which is tasked with building the tunnel.

"It is an engineering marvel. It involves great skill, not just blasting mountains," Arun told DW.

The cutoff time for the completion of the tunnel has been reduced by almost three years, to December 2023. Officials said they hoped that the tunnel would open to the public in 2024 on January 25, the eve of India's Republic Day.

How will Zojila improve livelihoods?

The Zojila Pass, which connects Kashmir's capital city, Srinagar, to Ladakh, an Indian union territory that constitutes part of the larger Kashmir region, is at present accessible about six months per year because of heavy snowing in winter.

Ladakh depends on Kashmir valley for most basic necessities, from vegetables to fuel to medicine. Most essentials must come through the Zojila pass, making life difficult for locals, who are forced to stockpile items for half of the year.

Indian officials are also optimistic that the Zojila tunnel might open up Ladakh to tourists year-round and help facilitate easier delivery of health care products and other basic amenities for the locals.

Asghar Ali, a shopkeeper in Kargil, a city in Ladakh, told DW that much of the produce he purchases for his store in bulk every year typically expires by the time summer arrives.

He said the tunnel would provide him with the luxury to sell as per the daily requirements of the local population.

"It will be a big relief," he said. "It will hopefully change our lives for good."

Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former legislator from Kargil, told DW that Ladakh's isolation from the outside world has a strong impact on the mental health of residents.

"Every winter brings the feeling as if we are being caged. We remain disconnected from the outside world, and it adversely affects our mental health," Karbalai said.

To gain access to the outside world, the people of Kargil have to travel nearly 250 kilometer to Leh airbase — an aerial route to escape the region during winters.

Karbalai said the new tunnel could boost winter sports and tourism in Drass, Zanskar, and other parts of Ladakh.

Many students have welcomed the construction of the tunnel as past closures of the road resulted in missed national university entrance examinations.

Hakeema Bano in Kargil missed her entrance examination for a postgraduate course at Jamia Milia University three years ago in New Delhi after Zojila Pass was closed because of a landslide. She had to wait one year to obtain admission in a postgraduate course later at the Central University of Kashmir.

"Zojila tunnel has discouraged scores of our students to take up higher education because they either miss entrance examinations conducted at national level after paying the fee or can't travel back home for a long time," Bano said.

India looks to revamp Ladakh with infrastructure overhaul

Countering China and Pakistan

Security analyst Rigzin Spalbar told DW that the  Zojila tunnel will be of great importance to India's defense, as military activities increase at the borders in the Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan regions.

Both India and China have stationed tens of thousands of soldiers in those areas, backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

"The tunnel will provide logistics flexibility to the military and give it operational and strategic mobility. In emergencies, we can quickly make the movement of troops and weaponry to Ladakh through the tunnel," Spalbar said. 

India-China tensions have spiked in recent years as New Delhi accused Beijing of sending troops to the borders.

In June last year, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese forces in Ladakh, Indian officials say, marking the first deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years.

The 13th round of talks between Beijing and Delhi in October to resolve the disputed Himalayan border broke down, with the sides blaming each other for the failure to make progress.

Instead of removing troops from the border over the harsh winter, as many as 50,000 Indian soldiers will stay on the line for a second consecutive year.

Spalbar also pointed out that the alternative routes between Srinagar and Leh are not only long and hazardous in winters, but located close to India's borders with Pakistan and China.

The need for such a tunnel was first felt during the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil war, and now the recent incursions by China are making it an "urgent necessity," he said.

With China-Pakistan military cooperation becoming stronger in the region, India must speed up work on the tunnel to make Ladakh accessible to the Indian Army by road, Spalbar added.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum