The Border Road Organisation is busy carving mountains and tunneling roads out of one of the world’s most difficult terrains. Riyaz Wani on how it will impact the geo-political strategy of India and the lives of the people in the state
When Rahul Gandhi laid the foundation of the 6.5 km long Z-Morh tunnel at Sonamarg on 4 October, it heralded the massive tunnel and road building activity that will not only give Kashmir an all-weather road to Ladakh but also be a response to the changing geo-strategic landscape of the region. Especially since Kashmir threatens to be flashpoint post the US-exit from Afghanistan. The situation is possibly made worse by a resurgent China, out to flex her muscles on the regional and global stage.
Z-Morh is one of the two strategic tunnels that will be fundamental to the connectivity with Ladakh, the scene of the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. Another is the 13 km long Zojila tunnel that will bypass the long and winding uphill road that remains buried under 10 feet of snow in winter. The tunnel is billed as an ambitious engineering enterprise that will involve burrowing deep through 13 kilometres of mountain over a decade.
The links are of profound strategic and economic significance. They will eventually bring Kashmir and Ladakh provinces together with its economic spin-offs for the people of the two regions. And more importantly, it will help rapid mobilisation of troops and armour to a strategically critical region bordered by China and Pakistan.
Over the past few years, Ladakh has been subject to intermittent Chinese intrusions, a sign of Beijing’s growing aggressive regional designs. In January 2010, Chinese troops had intruded into Demchok area on the Line of Actual Control and stopped work on a NREGA project. Besides, Ladakh has already been witness to a short war between India and Pakistan over the strategic Kargil heights in 1999.
“The tunnels are very ambitious projects,” says chief engineer of Project Beacon Brigadier TPS Rawat. “ We hope to complete them within the stipulated periods”.
An all-weather 434 km Srinagar-Ladakh road will complement the arduous 475 km long Manali-Leh highway, one of the world’s highest roads. The highway (if it can be called that) passes through a difficult snow-covered terrain and winds its way through the 13,050-foot-high Rohtang Pass, the Baralacha Pass (4,883 m), the Lachlung Pass (5,065 m) and the Tanglang Pass (5,359 m). The work on it, though expedited following Kargil war, goes on still. Work is underway to build a tunnel to bypass the Rohtang pass, which will create an alternative year-round link to Ladakh.
Ladakh, however, is one part of this ongoing great physical transformation. Border Roads Organisation is doing a feasibility study of the 18-km long Razdhan tunnel that will connect the remote Gurez in North Kashmir to Bandipora. The tunnel, located at a height of 11,672 feet, will similarly create an all-weather connectivity with Gurez, again a strategically important area close to Line of Control.
Similarly, a 4.5 km tunnel through the winding Sadhna pass will connect Tanghdar, an LoC town that has been witness to heavy infiltration over the past two decades. The pass, named after yesteryear Bollywood actress Sadhna, is perched at a height of 3,131 m, in the lap of Shamsbari mountain range. A tunnel through it will reduce the distance to Tanghdar by around 20 km.
And once completed, these roads will stitch Kashmir together with concrete and asphalt and connect places and people alienated from each other by geography. They will also increase troop mobility to the sensitive border areas with potential for military confrontation. These changes within Kashmir are taking place unnoticeably, while there is focus on the cross-LoC travel and trade with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
The army is also building a road connecting Drass with Gurez. The road, says JK Minister for Transport Qamar Ali Akhoon, “is for the exclusive movement of the army”. Last year, the Army also conducted successful trials of the road by plying defence vehicles on it. The Border Road Organisation is also laying a 120-km alternative road from Drass to Bandipore district in North Kashmir.
Together with cross-LoC routes like Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakote which seek to promote trade and travel between divided parts of Kashmir, these internal links are due to usher in a profound transformation in Kashmir. According to PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter, the eventual objective of these links should be “to uncage Kashmir”, to achieve an internal all-weather connectivity and to reconnect the state with the world. “The goal should be to put Kashmir once again on the Silk Road and to link it to its historical trade routes and its cultural roots,” Akhter said.
PDP is also pitching for re-opening of Skardu-Gilgit road, Turtuk road and in north Kashmir the road from Gurez to Hunza, Chilas, Gilgit and Baltistan.“It is through these routes that Cashmere wool went to the world. The fibre was produced in Ladakh and processed in Srinagar,” said Akhter.
At the same time, Kashmir Valley’s link to the country is also being strengthened. So far, there is only one road, the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, which connects the Valley with the rest of India. But now an alternative road will link Kashmir with Poonch in Jammu province. It is called the Mughal road. It was historically used by Mughal emperors to travel to Kashmir in the sixteenth century. It was also the route used by Akbar-the-Great to conquer Kashmir in 1586, and his son Emperor Jehangir died on this road while returning from Kashmir near Rajouri. Once complete, the road will bring down the distance between Srinagar and Poonch from the current 588 km to 126 km.
The two roads will be complemented by an ambitious railway line, which will join Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in the Valley. Under construction since 1983, the 345 km high-elevation line is a challenging engineering project that passes through inhospitable Himalayan ranges and across earthquake zones. The deadline for its completion, 2007, has now been deferred to 2017. Once complete, the railway line will make travel from central India to Kashmir easy. And more importantly, the railroad will serve as a more dependable supply route for the troops deployed in the Valley than the current landslide prone Jammu-Srinagar highway.
The state is witnessing a fierce road-building activity between Kashmir Valley and the far-flung, inaccessible, centrally-located places. One such road is being built to link Kashmir Valley directly with Doda district. This will also involve constructing a 5 km long tunnel between Sinthan and Singpura. Similarly, tunnels are also being mooted to connect frontier areas of Machil and Keran in Kupwara district in Kashmir Valley itself.
However, while these roads will link Kashmir like never before, it is their larger strategic underpinning that is overawing. More so, when across Ladakh, on the other side China has laid the impressive 1,140-km Qinghai-Tibet railway line passing through a similar tough terrain across a permanently frozen ground. The line was completed in five years.
Brigadier Rawat, however, downplays China’s infrastructural achievement. “China has a plateau area, we have a mountainous terrain,” Rawat says. “Ours is a more delicate job. We have to cut through mountains. Our mountains are tough and quality of rocks is different”.
As for the Chinese plans to build a 750 km rail link in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir between Havelian and the Khunjerab Pass along the Karakoram Highway and the extension of Karakoram Highway itself, the army’s spokesman in the Valley says infrastructure development in PoK is relatively easy. “ As we go from this side of Kashmir towards PoK, the Himalayan ranges taper off. That is why it is easy to construct roads there,” Lt Colonel J S Brar says.
However, what can be a cause of worry is the long gestation period of these projects, which are set back by the tough terrain and inordinate official delay in their execution. The result is India’s conspicuous strategic gap with China. This, at a time when China bids to make inroads into Ladakh and builds a strong presence in PoK.
“Yes, there is no doubt that China’s infrastructure has given it a strategic reach into India’s peripheries and interiors,” strategic expert and JNU professor Happymon Jacob says. “While I don’t look at India-China relations in the light of confrontation, but should that happen, India’s lack of access to its borderlands in Kashmir will be a problem.”
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.