- Whither – the all weather roads to Leh ?
Brig Vijay Atray.
Manali , 28 th June 2019.In my last article on ‘All weather road from Leh to Manali‘ I had emphasized the importance of Shinku La (Pass). However, on further examination & discussions with various experts in the field especially Border Roads Organisation & SASE (Snow and Avalanche Study Estt, a lab of DRDO) one tends to have a rethink.
Basically we have two axes to Leh, one from Manali to Leh & the other from Srinagar to Leh which passes through Zoji La, Kargil, Namika La, Fatu La & Lama Yaru. It remains closed between mid-November to mid-May due to heavy snow accumulation and avalanches between Gagangir and Dras. To make Srinagar-Leh road all weather Central Govt has already approved two tunnels one is Z Morh tunnel between Gagangir and Sonamarg which 6.25 km long and the other is 14.05 km tunnel between Baltal and Minamarg named as Zoji La tunnel.
As per Maj Gen Amin Naik , ex Adviser to ILFS both the projects were awarded to ILFS. The Govt declared ILFS bankrupt after it completed 40 % of Z Morh tunnel & only enabling work done on Zoji La tunnel. Today Zoji La tunnel is estimated to cost approx. 6,600 crores & the Z Morh tunnel approx. 2,300 crores. The tenders are now out for both these tunnels ; Zoji La on EPC model & Z Morh on BOT model & bids should be in for Zoji La tunnel by 24 th July & by 1 st August 2019 for Z Morh tunnel. One apprehends that there may be not be many companies which would qualify for the tunnels due to financial distress. One has to therefore wait & watch the outcome of these bids.
When one analyses the Manali Leh axes which is 474 Km long & have to negotiate four mighty passes i.e. Rohtang Pass, Baralacha La, Lachung La & Tanglang La. As per Brig Chandrana , Chief Engineer Rohtang tunnel work of Rohtang tunnel is almost complete except E & M works and control/operational buildings at the portals. However,he added that these can only be undertaken after surmounting the major problem of Sherry nallah which is creating heavy seepage of water over a stretch of 587 mtrs inside the tunnel. Most of it has been lined. Thereafter 100 % water proofing & channelizing the water etc. should be complete by end December this year.
Once the engineering aspect is completed testing, commissioning & the usual statutory compliance should take the date of opening of Rohtang tunnel to Nov / Dec 2020. The opening of Rohtang tunnel does open the road to Lahaul round the year. It reduces the distance by 45 kms & avoids 44 avalanches of a total of approx. 190 on this route. This area has 80 % population of the entire Manali –Leh route. Thus it is an achievement for the civil authorities but not for the defence of Ladakh region . From the strategic & logistic point of view there are still 3 more passes before one reaches Leh .
For the Baralacha La tunnel – which would be approx. 13.90 kms long- the DPR is in progress & the BRO should submit it by March next year. However, for the Lachung La (14.75 km) & Tanglang La (9.0 km) tunnels NHIDCL has issued tenders thrice but so far none has bided. As per the scientists of SASE even after all the four tunnels on Manali – Leh route are commissioned, which would reduce the distance by approx. 120 kms only 80 % problem would be solved. As per the scientists remainder 20 % would be solved by the realignment of the road – at places, construction of viaducts, avalanche – galleries, catch dams, mounds and snow supporting structures. Thus Manali – Leh axes is long way off before it becomes an all-weather road.
Before the story is concluded a word about Shinku La tunnel. This is yet another option discussed at times. Presently a road is under construction from Dracha to Nimmu via Padam. Once its construction is over it will become an alternate road to Leh from Manali as well as Kargil because a road between Padam and Kargil is already in operation. But the area through which this road is passing particularly between Darcha and Kurgaikh experiences heavy snowfall. This first 60 km of this road from Darcha is affected by 60 odd avalanches and at many locations road is also affected by debris flows. Stability of road at many places is also a big concern. This is passing over a pass known as Shinku La which is suited at an altitude of 5280 m.
To negotiate this pass BRO is planning to construct 4.25 km long tunnel but as per the opinions of SASE scientists this will not be sufficient to provide all weather connectivity. Even after construction of 4.25 km tunnel across Shinku La road may remain closed for 3 to 3 ½ months in a year. So one can conclude that it is a myth that once the Rohtang & Shinku La tunnels are constructed the road to Leh would be an all-weather road.
Kurgaikh experiences heavy snowfall. This first 60 km of this road from Darcha is affected by 60 odd avalanches and at many locations road is also affected by debris flows. Stability of road at many places is also a big concern. This is passing over a pass known as Shinku La which is suited at an altitude of 5280 m. To negotiate this pass BRO is planning to construct 4.25 km long tunnel but as per the opinions of SASE scientists this will not be sufficient to provide all weather connectivity. Even after construction of 4.25 km tunnel across Shinku La road may remain closed for 3 to 3 ½ months in a year. So one can conclude that it is a myth that once the Rohtang & Shinku La tunnels are constructed the road to Leh would be an all-weather road.
Irrespective of the problems enunciated above , to keep our borders secure , to have all weather connectivity , to reduce the burden on our Air Force -for emergency logistic support, to reduce the winter stocking effort, to mitigate the arduous effort of snow clearance by the BRO the nation has to carry out this exercise relentlessly & ensure that both these axes are open round the year. However, as explained above the Manali –Leh axes is a far fetched exercise.
Therefore , the nation should tackle Shrinagar –Leh axes as an operational priority . If the envisaged tendering for Zoji La & Z Morh tunnels doesn‘t materialize then it is suggested that a committee comprising of experts from BRO & NHIDCL be formed to find a way ahead to suggest a model to undertake the construction of ZojiLa & Z Morh tunnels , so as to keep our most important strategic road open throughout the year.