LABOURERS at work inside a tunnel in Baltal, north-east of Srinagar.—AP
LABOURERS at work inside a tunnel in Baltal, north-east of Srinagar.—AP

SONAMARG: High in a rocky Himalayan mountain range in Indian-occupied Kashmir, hundreds of people are working on an ambitious project to drill tunnels and construct bridges to connect the held valley with Ladakh, a cold-desert region isolated half the year because of massive snowfall.

Strategically important Ladakh is near Pakistan and China and currently depends on air supplies for about six months of the year.

Indian officials say a 6.5-kilometre tunnel, the first of four, is already complete and will make the resort town of Sonamarg accessible during the winter months for the first time. Sonamarg marks the end of conifer-clad mountains before Ladakh begins across the rocky Zojila mountain pass.

The $932 million project’s last tunnel, 14 kilometres long, will bypass the challenging Zojila pass and connect Sonamarg with Ladakh.

“It’s not like any other construction work. It’s great learning,” said Tariq Ahmed Lone, one of the workers, as he helped at a drilling machine.

Indian and Chinese soldiers have been engaged in a sometimes violent standoff in the Karakoram mountains in Ladakh for over 16 months along their de facto border, called the Line of Actual Control. Both countries have stationed tens of thousands of soldiers there, backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

Indian military planners view the tunnel project as extremely important for Ladakh. Experts say it will provide logistics flexibility to the military and give it operational and strategic mobility.

Politicians also see an opportunity in the project. The Zojila part of the tunnel is to be functional in 2026, but India’s road transport and highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, said on a visit to the project site on Tuesday that he hopes the work will be finished before the 2024 general election.

“It’s a challenge I know, but I’m confident they can do it on time,” Gadkari said. “Obviously, we would want it to be finished before the elections.”

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2021

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