Impact of Zojilla Tunnel on Baltal Base Camp

Romesh K Pandita
Baltal to Holy cave is the shorter route to reach Amarnathji Cave, pay obeisance to Lord Shiva and have darshan of Holy Ice Lingam. It is believed that Lord Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to Goddess Parvati here.
Majority of pilgrims adopt Baltal – Holy Cave route for pilgrimage as it is possible to safely trek the distance back and forth on a single fair weather day, provided they set for journey early in the morning. The walking track originates at Domel and passes through Railpathri, Brarimarg and Kalimata (overlooking Sangam). The length of the walking track from Domel to Holy Cave is 13 Kilometres and runs through steep, rugged and difficult terrain. The track from Railpathri (start of Km 3rd) to Brarimarg (end of Km 5th) is treacherous and fragile. During the journey the pilgrims come across stunning magnificent panoramic view of Solomon stillness in nature, consisting of natural vistas, glaciers, streams, rivulets, beautiful mesmerising landscape and snow-capped mountains.
Main Baltal Base camp is spread over an area of 800 Kanals of land and happens to be the largest Base Camp established during the Amarnathji Yatra period. This camp is used for establishing a large number of facilities, that includes arrangement for accommodation of officers/ officials/establishment from State and Centre Government for management and running of yatra smoothly. One hundred twenty prefabricated structures are erected in position to provide accommodation to officers/officials/establishment deputed from centre and State Government for smooth conduct of yatra. Twelve hundred tents by various private camping agencies are pitched in the area for providing accommodation to the pilgrims. Nine Langars are established by various reputed Non Government Agencies within the Base Camp area to provide free food to the large number of camp inmates. Separate areas have been earmarked within the Base Camp for establishing of CRPF Camp, State Police, Control Room, and Disaster Management, Fire & Emergency Services, Base hospital, helipad for emergency evacuation, car parking and other facilities. Proper security grid is established in and around the base camp for fool proof security of the Base Camp. The Base Camp is provided with proper entry and exit gates including frisking mechanism, queue railings for crowd management and baggage scanners at both entry and exit gates.
It is only in a matter of few days, the entire Baltal area including area falling on both sides of its approach road from Ranga More (on Srinagar-Leh national highway) to Baltal and then onwards to Domel (total 7Km length) develops into a virtual township. The sloping area on either side of the approach road from entry (frisking point 1) to Baltal Base camp gate (frisking point 2) gets occupied by service providers mainly ponywalas and shopkeepers, in a matter of few days, who pitch their tents for day to day use and care of their ponies. Various reputed Langar organisations from across country construct langar structures in a matter of few days from prefabricated materials along the hill side of the road to serve free food to pilgrims during their journey to holy cave. Many shops are assembled and erected along the road side by local vendors and service providers to sell dry fruits, vegetables, shawls, warm clothing, umbrellas, raincoats, gumshoes, eatables and several items of need. The Base Camp Baltal alongwith entire 2.50 kilometres approach road from Exit Gate to Domel remains abuzz with festivity with magnificent decoration and lighting arrangements all along the road by Langar owners and shopkeepers.
Post Amarnath row in 2008, a framework of action for resolving the issue related to the use of forest land for period of yatra by Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board at Baltal and Domail was decided.
The State Government as per the resolution decided to set aside 800 Kanals of forest land ( traditionally used for setting up various facilities during yatra period) to Shri Amarnathji Board for using the land for setting up temporary facilities during yatra period i) according to Boards requirements from time to time ii) raising of temporary prefabricated structures and toilet facilities iii) establishment of tented accommodation for private camping agencies iv) setting up of shops by local shopkeepers v) facilities for ponywallas and pithoowalas vi) provision for health care facilities vii) setting of Langars by private persons and groups for serving free food viii) facilities for helicopter operations and parking of vehicles ix) arrangement of security state police, paramilitary forces and other security agencies and other related arrangements.
Implication of construction of Zojilla Tunnel and its approach road on Baltal Base Camp:
The construction of Zojilla Tunnel for providing all weather road connectivity to Ladakh region (Union Territory of Ladakh) is on the top most priority of Government of India. The construction of the Tunnels at Z-More and Zojilla shall help provide road connectivity to Ladakh round the year. Despite remaining on top of the agenda of the Central Government the project could not take off because of some hiccups in finalisation of Award of contract of 14.15 Kilometres long tunnel. It is learnt that the Central Government wants Zojilla tunnel to take off at earliest possible day to provide all weather connectivity to the region for both strategic importance as well as fast development of Union Territory of Ladakh.
The construction of the approach road to Western Portal of Zojilla Tunnel is likely to i) dissect the Baltal Base Camp in two parts; ii) reduce the usable area of Baltal base camp by a sizable quantum iii) require re-location of a large number of facilities/structures in the base camp including Sewage Treatment Plant. The construction of the Zojilla tunnel having a length of 14.15 Kilometres will involve use of heavy earth moving machinery for removal of the huge quantity muck from the tunnel to the nearest dumping sites on sides of approach road originating from present national Highway near Ranga Morh to Western portal of Zojilla Tunnel. Huge number of men, machinery, equipment and quantity of construction material shall be required to be carried inside the tunnel through Western Portal, hardly 200mts away from Base Camp Baltal. The movement of heavy men Machinery, equipment and construction material is likely to make Baltal Base Camp un-habitable due to air and noise pollution during the expected construction period of seven years of Zojilla Tunnel and its Approach Road.
Suggestions for timely action
Construction of Zojilla tunnel of a length 14.15 Kilometres and its approach road from its take off point (Ranga Mohr) on Srinagar-Leh National Highway to its Western Portal is a very important national project from both development of Union Territory of Ladakh point of view and strategically important border areas in the region. Meanwhile importance of Baltal Base Camp spread over to about 800 Kanals of land during yatra period with a large floating population consisting of devotees on way to Holy Cave, service providers, Ponywallas, pithoowallas, Langar Organisations from all across the countries, State Police, paramilitary forces, army Civil Administration and others cannot be overlooked.
* In view of a very high priority of construction of Zojilla Tunnel, timely action should be taken to mitigate the impact due to its construction on Base Camp Baltal.
* Apart from nine Langars established by various Langar Organisations within the Base Camp Baltal, twenty four Langars are established along 2.5 Kms route from Baltal (Exit Gate) to Domel, thirty four Langar stores for maintaining supplies of eatable and required supplies to Langars functioning in upper reaches are also set up near pony stand at Baltal. The number of Langars is required to be rationalised with respect to actual requirement.
* The 10 metre wide and four kilometre long approach road taking off at Ranga Morh (National Highway) to Baltal continues to be WBM G-2, is a source dust pollution in whole Base Camp.
The road is required to be macadamised to stop pollution.
* Consider construction of STP along 7 Km long approach road from Ranga Morh to Domel for disposal of sewage generated from service providers on scientific lines.
(The author is Ex. GM, SASB)