Rahul Gandhi may lay foundation of Srinagar-Leh tunnel on Oct 4

When the government announced its big bang reforms to permit FDI in retail , a significant decision approving funding to construct a 6.5-km tunnel between Gagangeer and Sonamarg (Z-Morh) on the Srinagar-Leh highway passed largely unnoticed.

Reports from Kashmir now say that the Z-Morh tunnel's foundation stone could be laid on October 4 by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who has taken a personal interest in pushing the project to provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Leh along National Highway-1.

For the people of Ladakh and the security of India, the usefulness of the tunnel through a stretch called Z-Morh and its second phase extension, another 13km-long tunnel through Zoji La, will be no less momentous than the arrival of FDI in retail.

Currently, this road is closed for nearly seven months of the year because of snow, primarily in the Sonamarg-Zoji La section, isolating Ladakh. The only other road into the region - the Leh-Manali highway - is open for just four-and-half months because the road passes through the high Taglang La, Baralacha La and Rohtang Pass, which also get snowed up for a long period.

This situation compels the army and the civil authorities to spend the five months or so in which the road is open to stock the Ladakh region with food and fuel for its bitter winter.

The region is strategically of great importance to India. On the north and north-east, the border is disputed with China and the two countries have fought a war in the region in 1962. To the north lies the Siachen Glacier region, where the Indian and Pakistani armies face off and the Kargil region, which was subject to a Pakistani incursion in 1999.

It may be recalled that the Pakistani incursion into Kargil in 1999 anticipated that Zoji La would remain blocked through May and prevent India from sending reinforcements into the area. However, snow melted early that year and India was able to send reinforcements in and the rest, of course, is history.

The cabinet committee on infrastructure has approved Rs.2,716.90 crore for the Z-Morh tunnel, which is expected to be completed by 2016-2017. Thereafter, the project for the Zoji La tunnel will be taken up, which is expected to be finished by 2022-23.

Work on a tunnel through the Rohtang Pass on the Manali-Leh highway has already begun and is expected to be completed by 2014.

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