With new tunnels ready for use and many others in the pipeline, Kashmir is heading towards an era when Srinagar will be accessible round the year 24 x 7 from locations as far as Jammu, Leh or Gurez, R S Gull reports.
“Buying apples at Lal Chowk and issuing statements from New Delhi that all is well in Kashmir cannot change the ground reality and disputed status of Kashmir,”
Yasin Malik, Chairman JKLF reacting after Sushil Kumar Shinde, union home ministers in his visit roamed around Lal chowk, Srinagar.
Early next year, the Kashmir Rail will be chugging through between Baramulla and Banihal. As the tunnel piercing the Pir Panchal mountains near Qazigund is finally through, it is up to the politicians for sparing time to show green light to the rail.
The 11.2 km tunnel implemented by the HCC in around seven years cost railways Rs 1300 crore. If the costs of rest of the track are included, then it is Rs 1691 crore project. It will reduce the 35-km distance between Qazigund and Banihal to around 14.73 km and save more than an hour of travel time. Around 1300 workers including 150 engineers worked on the project for all these years to lay 7500 metric tonnes of steel, 328000 cubic meters of concrete after around a million cubic meters of underground excavations. Interestingly, outside the tunnel on the two sides, the track required building 39 bridges of which two are major, 30 minor and the rest are road-over or road-under bridges.
Project implementation in challenging terrain not only requires massive resources but delays the target as well. Recently, CAG pointed out that the project scheduled for completion in 2007 at an estimated cost of Rs 3077 crore will not be ready by 2018 at a cost of Rs 19565 crore. The terrain proved so challenging for implementing the ivory-tower designs that work worth Rs 1514.40 crore was abandoned after faulty execution in the Katra-Qazigund section, which is the deadliest.
But this is not the only tunnel that J&K is having. Right now, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is implementing an ambitious Rs 11000 crore project of four laneing the highway between Srinagar and Jammu. Set to be ready by 2016, the new 240-km road with partially new alignments will have 14 tunnels, 43 major bridges, 24 viaducts and a number of flyovers and underpasses. The work on three major tunnels including the one near Qazigund is already in progress.
It is not the inaccessibility of Kashmir valley that is leading to all these projects. It is the strategic locations of the place that is dictating the new priorities. China has laid highway-type roads on its side of the Sino-Indian border including the LoAC in Ladakh. Pakistan has improved roads to most of its positions all along the LoC. This has changed the decades-old policy in Delhi that borders should not have better roads because, in hostile times, it could help enemy. Now the soldiers are seeking a better road to the inhospitable post they are deployed at and the policy shift recommends better surface communication network for a swift response to any border crisis.
The Border Roads Organization (BRO) that manages most of the vital roads in the state have already identified the new tunnels it requires. In certain cases, it has already received the techno-economic feasibility reports. There are at least 11 tunnels planned in J&K alone. There will be a 4.5 km tunnel bypassing the 3131 meter high Sadhna Top that separates Kashmir from Tangdar, 13 km Zoji La and 6.5 km Z-Morh (on 434 km Leh-Srinagar highway), 11672 ft high Razdan Pass (on Bandipore-Gurez Road), Furkian Gali (on Machil-Kupwara road) and Khardung La (between Leh and Nubra). On October 4, Rahul Gandhi presided over the foundation laying at Z-Morh. It will be followed up by laying another 13-km in the Zoji La mountain. It would require almost a decade to burrow this tunnel.
The demand for a tunnel between Singhpora in Kishtwar with Kashmir on the functional Kishtwar-Srinagar road to bypass the perilous Sinthan Top has become a major issue. Neighbouring Doda is also seeking a tunnel for which the district administration is keeping small funds available year after year. BRO is actually planning a tunnel on the Banni-Bhaderwah road that will connect Srinagar with Lakhanpur bypassing Jammu.
Once all these tunnels are implemented, Srinagar will be a destination, barely a few hours away, from anyplace across the state.