Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and team at the entrance of the Zojila Tunnel
Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and team at the entrance of the Zojila Tunnel

Nitin Gadkari inspects construction of Zojila Tunnel, sets new 2023 deadline

Zojila Tunnel, which will reduce travel time between J&K and Ladakh, is being constructed by Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd (MEIL).

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, on Tuesday, September 28, visited the under-construction Zojila Tunnel, an important strategic route that will connect Srinagar to Leh. The tunnel is set to be Asia’s Longest Bi-directional and is being constructed at an altitude of 11,578 feet by Hyderabad-based Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd (MEIL).

Currently, the journey from Srinagar to Leh is through the Zojila pass, and this route is open for only five months, as extreme snowfall cuts it off during winters. This also acts as an impediment to the armed forces in Kashmir, who have to take alternative routes that are close to the Indo-Pakistan and the Indo-China borders, which are long-winding and time-consuming. Zojila tunnel will serve as an alternative, reducing the distance between the two Union Territories from 40 km to 13 km and travel time by 1.5 hours. The time to cross Zojila pass will also be cut from 3.5 hours to 15 minutes.

Visiting the East and West entrances of the tunnel on Tuesday, Minister Nitin Gadkari hailed the progress and indicated that the project may be completed before the December 2026 deadline. “I have given them a new deadline — December 2023. I told them that it should be completed before the 2024 elections. Sab kaam 2024 se pehle khatam ho jana chahiye warna humara band bajega (All the work should be completed before 2024 elections, otherwise we will be in trouble),” Gadkari said, addressing the media outside the West end of the tunnel. As of now, from the west end, around 140 metres of the tunnel has been burrowed, while on the east end, 400 metres has been excavated.

Officials from MEIL told the media that constructing this tunnel is challenging, as winter brings extremely peculiar and harsh atmospheric conditions. Not just the main tunnel, the construction work for several bridges and connecting tunnels are also being carried out. The Zojila tunnel project had been delayed for many years now, earlier because the first few tenders fell through, and now because of the harsh weather conditions.

The temperature in winters drops to -40ºC on the hilly terrain, and the area is prone to ice storms and avalanches. The area also remains under a thick sheet of ice for almost eight months. However, visiting the site now, Gadkari said he was happy with the progress and exuded confidence that it will be completed before time.

Gadkari was also accompanied by MoS for Road and Transport and Highways, General VK Singh (Retd) when they visited the site of a connecting tunnel from Z-Morh, which will be constructed in the Zojila Ghats between Sonamarg and Kargil. The 6.5-km-long Z-Morh tunnel has a 5-km approach road and the tunnel is 6.5-km long and is bi-directional. It also has an escape tunnel for emergencies.

The project is under the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL). The construction work of this tunnel is divided into two divisions in the 33 km span — the 18-kilometre connecting tunnel and the main 14-kilometre Zojila tunnel, a statement by MEIL said. The main tunnel will also have three ventilation shafts to ensure the movement of air.

Speaking to the media after inspecting the west entrance, Gadkari also gave details of the road works being carried out in Jammu and Kashmir. He gave details of around 20 tunnels — a total length of 32 km in Jammu and Kashmir — and 11 tunnels of a total length of 20 km in Ladakh. The cost of building these 31 tunnels in Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh will be around Rs 1.4 lakh crore, he said.

Gadkari also said that the completion of these projects will provide a much-needed boost to the local tourism industry in Jammu and Kashmir. “Tourism will increase fivefold in Kashmir because of these roads,” he said. He also shared that all the routes will have ‘five-star’ amenities.

“I also expressed my wish that these roads should have flower plantations. It should feel like we're going through a flower valley,” Gadkari said. “We will invite travel agencies to Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and would like to organise conferences to show how nice the infrastructure is here, and encourage them to organise tours here in Jammu and Kashmir too. The Minister also added that they are mulling facilities like ice skating and ropeway cable cars to boost tourism in the two Union Territories.

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