Gateway at Zozila

Isolated and forgotten, the Zozila tunnel can rewrite a new chapter for frozen, obscure Kargil

Meha Dixit Kargil

Kargil in Ladakh, which was prior to the 'Kargil war' an obscure region, almost unheard of, became synonymous with India's 'victory' against Pakistan. While Kargil received much attention as the theatre of war, issues related to its people seem to have been shoved beneath the sheen of India's Kargil victory, which each year is commemorated with immense pride. The demand of Ladakhis for round-the-year connectivity has barely received adequate attention. Sadly, Kargil's landscape still hangs in obscurity - an enigma to the outside world - while Kargilis remain immured during the biting winters as a thick slush of snow blankets the highway that connects the region to the rest of India.

Ladakh, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir, was divided into Kargil and Leh districts in 1979. Kargil is even more poorly connected than Leh, and the connection is through the Zojila Pass. Due to harsh winters, the pass closes for six months, isolating Kargil from rest of the country. 

The Jammu-Srinagar-Zojila-Kargil and Manali-Serchu-Leh axes connect Ladakh to the rest of India. Intense rainfall and avalanche-prone areas on both sides of the various passes along both the axes lead to their cutting off during the winter season. A tunnel at Himachal's Rohtang pass is sometimes erroneously viewed as a means to all-weather road connectivity for Ladakh, although it barely has any link with winter connectivity to the region. Indeed, the construction of a tunnel at Zojila seems to be the only feasible option for round-the-year connectivity. For years, therefore, Ladakhis, especially from Kargil, have been calling for expediting the construction of this tunnel. 

While Leh has a well-functioning airport, the one in Kargil is yet to be utilised for commercial flights. It requires upgradation which has been pending for a long time. Due to the hilly terrain, the runway needs to be extended by 3,000 feet for normal commercial flights. The current length is merely 6,000 feet, inadequate for flight service in hilly areas. The Indian government has announced comprehensive packages for the upgradation of Srinagar/Jammu and Leh airports, but Kargil has been neglected once again.  

Poor connectivity has adversely affected Kargil's economy, the health of its people, and its development sector. Tourism, crucial to its economy, is dependent on the Srinagar-Leh highway. There exists a huge potential for winter sports and winter tourism, but tourism gets badly affected due to the six-month inaccessibility. Moreover, disruption of road connectivity affects the transportation of essential goods, and Kargilis are forced to stock up firewood, foodstuff and other essential supplies for over six months. 

During summers, the administration and the people are primarily engaged in "stocking basic amenities for the winters". Thereby, key development concerns are neglected. Further, in terms of strategic significance, Kargil's isolation affects India adversely since it happens to be a sensitive zone sharing its border with Pakistan; hence, infiltration is a major concern. 

The demand of the people of Ladakh and Kargil for the construction of Zojila tunnel or an all-weather road has been ignored. Time and again, the central and state governments, and various political parties, have failed to keep their promises on the project. Indeed, the tunnel will improve the socio-economic index of Kargil and the entire Ladakh region. It will alleviate the plight of the local population, while fulfilling strategic requirements. 

Around 15-km long, the Zojila tunnel connecting Ladakh with Kashmir, if realised, would help in easy and free movement of defence and civilian traffic and goods, especially during winter when Kargil remains isolated. Only after the construction of the Zojila tunnel will the Srinagar-Zojila-Kargil axis become an all-weather road. The tunnel will reduce the huge expenditure being incurred on Ladakh's air maintenance and the heavy winter stocks that the civil and army authorities have to carry. It will increase Sind River's irrigation potential and boost the availability of badly needed electricity in the region.

While India has adopted a dilly-dally approach towards the construction of the Zojila tunnel, it has been actively engaged in reconstruction and development work in a number of neighbouring countries and has made huge donations. In January 2009, India completed construction of the Zaranj-Delaram Highway in southwest Afghanistan. During 2009-10, the grant assistance offered to Nepal under the 'aid to Nepal' budget was Rs 127 crore. To boost cross-border connectivity between India and Nepal, the Indian government is developing an extensive network of roads in Nepal's Terai region at the cost of Rs 776.15 crore. In June 2009, India offered Rs 500 crore for relief and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka. In Myanmar, the Indian State is actively involved in various economic projects. So why not in Kargil?

Javed Naqi, founder of Kindling Accessibility Initiatives in Ladakh, says, "China made the miracle train to Tibet. Why can't we?"

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: