Difficult terrain and weather challenges have pushed the deadline for completion of the Zojila tunnel, which will provide all-weather connectivity between the Kashmir valley and the Ladakh region, to December 2030, according to officials.
The tunnel, said to be the longest of its kind in Asia and at the highest altitude, will significantly cut down the time to cross the Zojila pass from four hours to just 15 minutes, they said.
Officials said that while 40% of work on the 13-km-long tunnel is already over, the challenges posed by the terrain and weather are such that the rest of the work is taking so much time.
"The area is severely avalanche-prone. The work had to be stopped multiple times due to the difficulties posed by the weather and the terrain. The tunnel was to be completed by December 2026. But now, keeping the challenges in mind, the deadline has been revised to December 2030," Captain I.K. Singh of the Border Roads Organisation told PTI.
The tunnel project through the Zojila Pass at an altitude of 11,578 feet on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National Highway is of strategic importance.
The highway remains closed during winter due to heavy snowfall, cutting off the Ladakh region from Kashmir. The tunnel will help overcome this hindrance and prove all-weather connectivity to the Ladakh region.
The single-tube Zojila tunnel, from Baltal in the Ganderbal district of central Kashmir to Minimarg in Drass town of Ladakh's Kargil district, has an approach road of 18 km.
"The total length of the project from Sonamarg to Minimarg is 31 km. From Sonamarg to Baltal it is 18 km. Then the main tunnel starts from Baltal and goes to Minimarg. It is 13 km long. The work is going on at a rapid pace on both the projects," Imtiaz Ahmed, the construction manager of Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Limited told PTI here.
MEIL is constructing the tunnel using the new Austrian tunneling method.
"By using this method, the chances of accidents are very low while the quality and the speed are very high. This technology is applied in Europe and North America," he explained.
Ahmed said out of the 13 km stretch, cutting has been done on 6 km — three km from each end. The stretch remains closed for over four months during winter due to excessive snowfall.
"It not only causes problems for the locals and tourists, but the military movement also becomes a challenge during those four months. It is easier to clear snow on the stretch from Dras to Minamarg. However, from Minamarg to Baltal it is very difficult to even clear snow during those months... All these challenges will be addressed once the tunnel is operational," he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the Zojilla tunnel in 2018. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by the prime minister, had approved the construction, operation, and maintenance of this tunnel at a total cost of ₹6,800 crore.