Haider Ali Askary
Barring the beauty of the Kashmir valley, in the western section of the Himalayan mountain ranges at the northern most part of India lays the moonland region called “Ladakh”. Located at an elevation of more than 8,500 ft. (2676 meters) above the sea level, the region is seemingly familiar for its barren scenery and harsh winter climatic condition. The Zojila pass is the lifeline for the people of this region. Zojila pass is situated at an altitude of 11,649 ft. (3528 meters) on the Indian National Highway 1A connecting Srinagar-Kargil-Leh. It is the only feasible motorable road which connects the region to the rest of the world through Srinagar. This road, however, remains closed for better half of every year due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. In fact, it is notorious for its late opening in spring and early closure in winter.
Due to the closure of this road Ladakh remains cut-off from Kashmir and rest of the world for around 5-6 months every year. During these months, people of the region are left with no other option but to live in the “freezing open prison” in life-threatening condition. Owing to the ill-equipped district hospitals in the twin districts of Ladakh, Kargil and Leh, running with lack of high-tech facilities, the ‘critical’ patients are left at the mercy of God during winter. Countless number of patients succumbed to death who could not reach at a proper health care centre outside of the districts on time. Numerous people lost their lives while braving to cross the mighty pass on foot. The frightening pass also has drawn-off innumerable vehicles carrying passengers and goods. Apart from difficulties where human lives are directly at stake, the isolation –due to the unavailability of proper communication facility to Ladakh– result in great loss in terms of, foremost, education and health among other spheres of life.
Recently, students in Kargil and Leh who were to appear for the Jammu and Kashmir Service Selection Board (JKSSB), Examination at Kashmir and Jammu, centers got stuck there due to the sudden snowfall and blockade of the Zojila pass. The students then requested and held protests asking the Government to postpone the examination until the road opens (if only the Border Roads Organization (BRO) could open again). To this, the authorities initially showed reluctance, however, after two days long protest by the candidates the exam was finally postponed.
Also, the non-local Government employees like teachers and others posted in Ladakh go back early in winter and join late in summer since the Zojila pass gets inaccessible in between. As a result the Ladakhi students at Government schools and people in general suffer. Moreover, the civilian air service is available only from Leh airport which hardly functions on a regular basis in winter reasoning bad weather condition. Needless to say that the fare gets sky rocketed during “peak” seasons of the year. Kargil, to this date does not have a functional civil airport. Although, due to the strategic and cross border importance of Ladakh, the Indian army sympathetically provides a feasible air service in winter, nonetheless, to the distressed population of Kargil who remain in their utter need.
Looking at the plight of the people who spend much of their time in adverse condition the proposal for construction of a tunnel at Zojila pass had been put forward by the Ladakhi populace for time to time. This all-weather road connectivity for feasible system of communication is a long sought pressing demand, or so to say “historical demand” from the people of both Kargil and Leh. This demand from the Ladakh region every time failed to get an optimistic response from both the State and Centre Government in the past so many decades. Many political parties and politicians gained votes and remained in power using “Zojila tunnel” in their electoral campaigns which worked out well in their favour –and still does.
In a deep escalated reaction to this, a group of young people from the region, couple of years ago, took up a fair responsibility on their shoulders to bring up the issue into the limelight by using the social media, social gathering, online campaign and the like in order to expand the pool of its consideration. These groups mainly function through the social networking site facebook, with pages like “Zojila Watch” and “Zojila Tunnel Campaign”, with more than 1000 members, mainly from Ladakh and also a number of non-Ladakhis. Their aim being to disseminate at a wider level the importance and urgency for a tunnel at Zojila pass. The protagonist of the group, Javed Naqi, a native of Kargil and Assitant Professor with J&K Higher Education Department, writes “The construction of tunnel at Zojila or all weather road will result in a dramatic shift in socio-economic development of the region. The dream tunnel will save crores of state money, now being spent for air maintenance and winter stocking of the region both by army and civil administration…We’ll continue our fight to connect Ladakh on different forums unless and until we see the dream tunnel in place.”
In reaction to such developments, the UPA-II Government at the Centre announced construction of the Zojila tunnel in October 2012. The first phase construction of the tunnel, it was told, was to begin soon and would be completed in three phases. The first phase never saw its beginning and the UPA Government had a terrible electoral loss in General Election 2014.
However, the NDA Government which came to power in an overwhelming majority has now enthused new hope. “The Government will soon start work on the Rs 10,000 Crore Zojila pass tunnel in Jammu & Kashmir to provide all-weather connectivity to people in Ladakh region” Union Minister Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, said recently. The people of Ladakh region have kept their hopes intact.
There is a need to recognize and understand the prominence of the tunnel, looking at various economic benefits and social importance which are attached to it. The construction of a tunnel will undeniably provide round-the-year connectivity to the isolated region. Needless to say that it would save lot of cash and time of many a needy. Keeping in mind the geographic location of the region and the strategic and cross border importance of Ladakh, the Government could save ample expenses spent on defense there through constructing a tunnel.
The inhabitants of the barren island continue to see the end of isolation while fighting for basic survival every winter. This injustice and violation of Right to Life depriving Kargil (Ladakh) of all-weather connectivity must end sooner than later.
(The author is a Research Student at University of Delhi)
Haider Ali Askary