Work on the Zojila tunnel to begin from October 15

No parallel escape tunnel in new design; instead of two bi-directional tunnels, single two-way tunnel to be built

File/ Representational Photo

The work on the much-awaited Zojila tunnel is likely to begin on October 15.

Sources told the Greater Kashmir that the Union Minister for Road, Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari is likely to inaugurate the work on the tunnel which will provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Leh.

Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone of the project, which is said to be Asia’s longest bi-directional tunnel, in May 2018. However, in 2019, the contract awarded to IL&FS was terminated as the company abandoned the project given its financial problems. The Centre then decided to build the project in EPC mode instead of the hybrid annuity model as it had planned earlier.

The government invited fresh bids in June this year and the work was awarded to Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited (MEIL), which has emerged as the lowest bidder for the job with a quote of Rs 4400 crore, official sources said.

The project is to be built on EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) mode. The tunnel is of strategic importance since it will provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Leh while the current National Highway that connects the two remains shut for nearly six months due to snowfall during winter.

Sources said that the government has done away with a parallel emergency tunnel in the Zojila project, changing the initial design, which has led to halving the project cost to around Rs 4400 crores.

An official close to the matter said that the government was earlier building two bidirectional tunnels as part of the project, but has now decided to build a single two-way tunnel.

They said that the 14.2 km long tunnel which has been languishing for a few years now, had seen cost escalation to the tune of around Rs 1,600 crore after it was stranded by IL&FS Transportation Network, the road development arm of crisis-hit Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS).

He said that the cost reduction was achieved after doing away with the second tunnel, among other factors that led to reduction in the project cost.

Talking to the Greater Kashmir, the Executive Director NHIDCL Sanjeev Malik said that the contractor firm has started the work on the Zojila project and it will be formally inaugurated next week.

He said that a six-year-deadline has been fixed to complete the 14.15 km long bi-directional tunnel across the Zojila Pass on the Sonamarg-Kargil section of National Highway-01 from Srinagar to Leh. The connecting road will also see the construction of two twin-tube unidirectional tunnels at Nilghar totalling nearly 2.4 km between Sonamarg and Baltal. This road will connect the Zojila Tunnel with the crucial Z-Morh Tunnel, whose work was awarded to APCO Amarnathji Tunnelway in January at a cost of Rs 2,379 crore.

Asked whether doing away with the emergency tunnel ensured safety, the official said, “There are several longer tunnels built in other countries, which have only one bi-directional tunnel, adding that alternative arrangements have been made to ensure safety.

Pertinently, the Zojila pass is situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh national highway that remains closed for nearly six months due to heavy snowfall.