ZOJILA, June 15:Twelve years after the Kargil war tested India’s ability to reach Ladakh, the government has woken up to the need for an all-weather road to this strategically important region.
And conquering Zojila has become the lynchpin for this ambitious project.
The pass serves as the gateway to the Ladakh region, one of the arid and coldest deserts in the world. The 434-km-long Srinagar-Leh road, which was opened last month, is in a bad condition and makes movement of vehicles difficult.
Since the opening of the highway, a convoy of hundreds of trucks loaded with essential supplies and other items, has
been crawling along the highway to reach Zojila.
With China on the other side of the border, Zojila is emerging as a strategically-important road. It is also the only connecting link between Ladakh and Kashmir and remains closed for six months due to accumulation of heavy snow.
“Zojila, which is located at an altitude of about 12,000 ft, is the fourth highest pass in the country,” said Chief Engineer of Beacon, Brig TPS Rawat.
“It is the toughest pass in the country due to its harsh weather conditions, treacherous and accident-prone mountain range,” the Chief Engineer said.
With Chinese incursions becoming a routine in Ladakh, the Centre is planning to make the Srinagar-Leh highway an all-weather road.
The importance of the road was reinforced during the Kargil war in 1999. After the war, it was decided to increase the strength of the Army in the region and subsequently the Army’s full Corps was deployed in Ladakh. The highway is important primarily for maintaining a continuous supply line to defence personnel deployed in the area, including troops manning posts at the Siachen glacier.
The Srinagar-Leh road traverses through two major mountain ranges. It first crosses through the Himalayas at Zojila and then the Zanskar Mountain Range at Fatula to enter into Ladakh. Zojila witnesses six metres of snow every year and the temperature goes down to minus 28 degree C.
“Out of 30-km-stretch of the road from the tourist resort of Sonamarg to Gumri near Zojila, a 10-km stretch has steep ravines and vertical mountains, which are prone to avalanches,” said a Beacon engineer at Gumri.
“During snow clearance we use GPS technology. But our drivers who run the snow-cutter machines do a great task while clearing the road. It is they who remember the actual road alignment, which is not visible after heavy snowfall,” he said.
He said the labourers and Beacon employees, work in freezing temperatures and brave high-speed winds.
After Zojila was opened to traffic, Noor-u-Din, a resident of Ganderbal district, was among the first batch of truck drivers who was allowed to carry essential goods to Ladakh by Beacon authorities.
“I have been carrying essentials to Ladakh for the past 15 years. Negotiating the curves of Zojila are the toughest part of my journey.
There is always a possibility of avalanches and shooting stones. The weather can change any time,” he said.
Locals in Ladakh owe their sustenance to these truck drivers and rely on them for essential commodities. “We remain landlocked for six months and if the drivers do not show courage, people of Ladakh and Kargil will be left without food,” said Mohammad Yousuf, a resident of
Tunnels of hope
The Central government has decided to construct two tunnels for better connectivity with Ladakh. The feasibility study of the two tunnels- Z Morh and Zojila tunnel- along the Srinagar-Ladakh highway is under way.
The Z Morh tunnel would be 6.5-km-long and will connect Gagangir with Shetkari. The other tunnel would be 13-km-long and would connect Baltal with Minamarg.