Work begins on the Srinagar-Leh Zojila tunnel 15 years after the project was first conceived

Highways minister Nitin Gadkari initiated virtual ‘ceremonial blast’ of the tunnel Thursday. Once complete, it will provide year-round connectivity between Srinagar and Leh.

Representational image. A file photo of the Zojila pass in Jammu and Kashmir.

New Delhi: Fifteen years after it was first conceived, work on the strategically crucial 14.5-km Zojila tunnel, connecting Srinagar to Leh with an all-weather road, has finally taken off.

On Thursday, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari initiated the ‘ceremonial blast’ of the tunnel virtually.

Speaking on the occasion, Gadkari said, “One of the most difficult stretches to drive and build, the geo-sensitive Zojila stretch is strategically important to the defence of our country. It will not only provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar, Drass, Kargil and Leh but it will also further strengthen the economic and social-cultural integration of both the Union Territories.”

The existing National Highway-1 connecting Srinagar to Leh remains shut for six months of the year on account of snowfall. The Zojila tunnel, once ready, will reduce the travel time between Srinagar and Leh from 3 hours to 15 minutes.

Gadkari said it’s a challenging project but the government is hopeful that it will be completed before the next Lok Sabha election. “We will get Prime Minister Narendra Modi to inaugurate it,” he said.

The Rs 4,509-crore project, to be built at an altitude of 4,000 meters, was first announced by the previous Manmohan Singh government in 2013. With its six-year time-frame, the project would have been nearing completion now had it started at the time of announcement.

Twists and turns since 2013

The Zojila tunnel project was first conceived in 2005. It was announced in 2013 after the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) prepared its Detailed Project Report. Over the last seven years, the project has seen many twists and turns.

When the project was first announced, it was to be undertaken under the public private partnership (PPP) mode. However, when bids were invited for the first time, no private player came forward.

The project failed to find takers three more times. Private players were reluctant to take it up because of the difficult terrain. The fact that it was in strife-torn J&K was also a deterrence.

In 2016, the project was handed over to the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd, a unit of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, from BRO.

The NDA government then decided to convert it to engineering, construction and procurement (EPC) mode, where 100 per cent funding comes from the government. In January 2018, the contract was awarded to IL&FS. However, the contract was terminated last year due to financial constraints of the group.

In August 2019, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways annulled the project’s bidding process for the sixth time, citing “administrative reasons”.

In August this year, the project was awarded to Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd, the lowest bidder.

Infrastructure push in Kashmir

PM Narendra Modi had also laid the foundation stone of the project, which will come up in one of the most difficult terrains of J&K, in May 2018.

Because of strategic reasons, the government has accorded top priority to development of highways in Jammu and Kashmir. Infrastructure development in the region got a fresh thrust after the Centre’s decision to scrap J&K’s special status.

Currently, highway projects worth over Rs 50,000 crore are underway in the region. The Border Roads Organisation and state Public Works Department are implementing 24 NH projects.

These include the Qazigund-Banihal tunnel project, which is scheduled to be completed by July 2020, construction of Udhampur-Chenani and Chenani-Ramban sections of the NH, and construction of semi-ring road in Jammu, among others.

Source: https://theprint.in/india/governance/work-begins-on-srinagar-leh-zojila-tunnel-15-years-after-project-was-first-conceived/524188/