IL&FS to create lifeline for Ladakh with Asia’s longest bi-directional tunnel

IL&FS is starting work on what will be India’s longest road tunnel, surpassing the record currently held by its own recently completed Chenani–Nashri tunnel. In May 2018, the Prime Minister flagged off work on the Zoji La Tunnel in Jammu & Kashmir, which will also be Asia’s longest bi-directional tunnel.

IL&FS Transportation Networks (ITNL) will use its unique expertise to build a 14.5 km-long state-of-the-art tunnel connecting Leh and Kargil with Srinagar. Paired with ITNL’s under-construction Z-Morh tunnel from Srinagar to Sonmarg, this will create year-round, all-weather connectivity to the Ladakh region, which otherwise remains cut off from the rest of the country for half the year.

‘Kashmir joined India in 1947 but Kargil will only become part of India when the Zoji La tunnel is built’

‘Kashmir joined India in 1947 but Kargil will only become part of India when the Zoji La tunnel is built,’ says a Kargil resident, articulating a sentiment widespread in the region. The impact of this ground-breaking project for the people of Ladakh — and its strategic national significance — will be momentous.

Why Kashmir needs the tunnel

15 km from Sonmarg, Zoji La is a 11,575 feet high mountain pass en route the critical Srinagar–Leh national highway. Snow and bad weather force closure of the pass from November to April each year. This means that everything from trade and supply of basic goods and services to tourism ceases, completely isolating the Kargil, Dras and Leh regions of Kashmir for at least five months of the year. 

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Basic supplies being pulled along the frozen Zanskar river. Kargil, Dras, Leh and other regions of Ladakh come to a standstill during the winter as they are cut off from the rest of the country.

Even when the route is open it is notoriously dangerous, and is usually choked with army trucks carrying essential supplies for the winter months. When the tunnel is completed, the 3.5 hours it takes to traverse the pass will be cut down to 15 minutes.

The tunnel will boost tourism and livelihoods in Ladakh, and improve national security along the LoC

The tunnel will be a lifeline for these remote yet strategic areas of Kashmir. During the winter months, life in Ladakh comes to a virtual standstill, with a scarcity of goods as basic as medicines and vegetables. By enabling safe year-round connectivity to the rest of the country, the tunnel will improve standards of living and boost livelihoods, while promoting tourism and entrepreneurship in Ladakh. This unique part of India’s geography will see unprecedented socio-economic development. It will also aid national security as Kashmir’s Line of Control will be monitored more closely and border security forces will receive supplies throughout the year.

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The stunning landscape around Zoji La is not something that drivers can enjoy, as they negotiate a thin path between life and death on the pass's dangerous curves

No longer a tightrope

Drivers’ safety is a key concern that will be addressed by the tunnel. The nerve-wracking curves flanking the pass have led to numerous casualties over the years. Truck drivers approaching the infamous ‘Captain’s Curve’ just before Zoji La are known to make a phone call home, praying it is not their last. The tunnel will provide an alternative to the steep slopes and treacherous bends of the Zoji La pass. 

A 14.2 km parallel escape tunnel will run along its entire length. Like ITNL’s Chenani–Nashri tunnel, this will house a Fully Integrated Tunnel Control System that will include transverse ventilation system, uninterrupted power supply, emergency lighting, CCTV monitoring, variable message signs, traffic logging equipment and a tunnel radio system. It will be equipped with emergency telephones and fire-fighting cabinets at every 125 m, pedestrian cross-passages at every 250 m and motorable cross passages and lay-bys at every 750 m.

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Like the 'smart' Chenani–Nashri tunnel, the Zoji La tunnel will house state-of-the-art systems to ensure highest safety standards

When the going gets tough…

One end of the tunnel lies uphill from Dras, the second coldest inhabited place on earth. The temperature at the project site can go down to –45º C, with upto 30 feet of snow cover. Oxygen levels are low and avalanches are frequent. ITNL’s local area expertise, with man and machinery already mobilised for other projects in the area, places it in an ideal position to meet these challenges. The New Austrian Tunneling Method paired with a new pulse-drilling process from Belgium will help address the tricky Himalayan geology of the project site.

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ITNL is employing innovative tunnelling methods and its local area expertise to achieve this feat

The tunnel will be India’s first to have three vertical shafts, which will aid construction as well as provide active ventilation. It will also be the first time in India that tunnelling will be done from the centre outwards to the two extremities. The tunnel is expected to be finished in 5 to 7 years.

How IL&FS is realising this national dream

This is the culmination of a long journey that began with a government initiative to build the tunnel in 2013, when it was planned as a PPP project in the build-operate-transfer format. When it was re-envisioned as an engineering-procurement-construction (EPC) project in 2017, ITNL emerged as the lowest among four bidders at Rs 4,899 crore — almost half of the highest bid — and remarkably even lower than the reserve price set by the government.

With the Chenani–Nashri and Z-Morh tunnels, ITNL has already set benchmarks for long highway tunnels in India

Behind ITNL’s winning bid lies its trailblazing expertise in highway tunnel construction in Himalayan conditions. With completion of the Chenani–Nashri tunnel in record time, ITNL benchmarked the specifications, standards and timelines for construction of long highway tunnels — an area that hitherto discouraged planners for lack of available capabilities. ITNL has demonstrated its in-house design, development, management and construction capability in not only the Chenani–Nashri tunnel but also in setting the pace for the Z-Morh tunnel.

For a company that is committed to stretching its boundaries towards the work of nation-building, Zoji La is simply the next height to conquer.