The Zoji La Hero

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If the Zoji La is cleared off the mass snow accumulations for an early access to Ladakh, it is just not machine but a man who is behind it. He is popularly known as Tulla and he is deaf and dumb, writes Jalauddin Baba, a filmmaker who has just completed a fascinating film on this hero

Inayatullah Khan alias Tulla

The Zojila Pass, that separates Kashmir from Ladakh, is considered world’s second most inhospitable terrain. In fact, the road that runs through is one of the world’s 10 most dangerous roads. A 12000 ft depth is a visual nightmare.

The 434-km road to Ladakh close by late November and open again early May. During all these months, the road lays buried under mountains of frozen snow making any movement impossible. Even clearing the road early summer is not as easy as it seems. The machines have to literally go into mountains of snow and make the road accessible.

The road is managed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Its Project Beacon takes care of the road till it crosses the pass and the Project Sampark takes over. BRO has a lot of machines to manage the mountain. But more than machines they have a man. His name is Tulla.

Tulla usually bulldozes the Zojila rocks, clears hundreds of ft of accumulated snow and cuts giant mountains, under the shooting stones and snow slides. He knows the Zoji La like the palm of his hand.

There are lot of legends about Tulla. His colleagues say that thrice in last 15 years, Tulla was washed away by avalanches while on work. Never ever was the Bulldozer recovered but in all the three occasions, Tulla made a dramatic re-appearance. He never gave it up and continues working.

Tulla is a dare-devil. He is deaf and dumb but the handicap has never come his way. Tulla and his companions come back year after year, brave the adverse weather conditions, sustain injuries but ensure they clear the road of all the obstacles.

“I know him since his childhood,” one elderly worker at the snow clearance operation said. “He is neither able to talk not has the capacity to listen. But he is sharp and fearless.” The worker said that when they detect some danger, they have to throw a stone towards him to get his attention. “It is only then that he moves with his dozer to safety,” he said.

Tulla has never been to school. He was brought up as a deprived and unprivileged boy with two handicaps. But he fought his way to be what the situation could offer. It was in childhood, those who know him said, that he picked the art of driving a dozer and then he mastered it. Amit Chander, under whom Tulla works on the Zoji La said that Tulla is right now the expert in entire Project Beacon. “He is able to handle any machine and he knows everything about the terrain.”

BRO officials admit that Tulla’s absence would mean a nightmare. Once he was absent, one official said, and the rest of the team started working. “After two hours when he rejoined us, he was shocked to tell us that we all were moving through a glacier and not the road and then he traced the actual road which was 15 ft away from the spot we were working,” the official said.

Working on the Zoji La means making a new road every year. Their instinct is their support system. Tulla is the living example of that instinct. Clearing the Zojilla stretch is not an easy job. Working at such a height in such a cold weather is a real tough job. It starts first with the butchery of fear. It equals putting your life at risk every day. Tulla and his companions are heroes who get little or no attention at all.

While shooting for a film on Tulla for three seasons in 2015, 2016, and 2017, I could see the risks involved in managing this road. The temperatures are minus 10-degree Celsius to minus 30 degrees Celsius. At times bad weather, sudden snowfall, torrential rains, thunderstorms, flash floods, sliding and avalanches would hamper the clearance work thus my shoot. I never had a full sunny day to shoot. But at the end of the day, I saw the passion winning.

Tulla’s actual name is Inayatullah Khan. He is a resident of Nilgri near Gagangeer in Sonamarg. He is unmarried and illiterate and has never seen a school. He lives with his parents, three brothers and two sisters. He actually earns for the joint family. Locally, he is known as path-tracker.

What is interesting is that despite being so important to the running of the crucial road, Tulla is not a permanent employee. BRO pays him Rs 8000 a month and sometimes extends help to him by way of rice and blankets from its welfare fund.

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