India races to build strategic Zojila tunnel as standoff with China continues

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Billed as Asia's longest bidirectional tunnel, the all-weather connectivity Zojila project is being constructed at a breakneck speed in the Indian-administered geostrategically sensitive terrain of Jammu and Kashmir.

Thousands of workers are involved in an ambitious project to drill tunnels and construct bridges to connect the Kashmir Valley with Ladakh, a cold-desert region that is isolated for most of the year because of inclement weather.

Ladakh shares borders with Pakistan and China and depends on air supplies for about six months of the year.

Indian and Chinese soldiers have been engaged in tense and, at times, a violent standoff in the Karakoram mountains in Ladakh for over 16 months, along a de facto border called the Line of Actual Control.

In June last year, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese forces in a disputed Himalayan border area. The incident followed rising tensions, and was the first deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years.

Both countries have since stationed tens of thousands of soldiers there, backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

Zojila is a 14.15km long tunnel located at an altitude of about 3,000 metres, situated under the Zojila Pass.

Analysts believe it will be of great importance to India's defence, as military activities increase at the borders in the Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan regions.

The tunnel will connect Srinagar and Leh through Dras and Kargil. The passage will begin at Sonmarg in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and terminate at Minamarg, in Ladakh. The roadway is being constructed at one of the most dangerous motorable stretches in the world.

China, India building up infrastructure

Officials say a 6.5km 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.

“It is an engineering marvel. It involves great skill, not just blasting mountains," said P Arun, deputy general manager execution of Megha Engineering and Infrastructures Limited, which is tasked with building the tunnel.

The project will allow India year-round access to Ladakh, and complements a massive programme of works to improve connectivity in the area, which includes the construction of 57 roads and 32 helipads, as wells as 47 outposts and 12 staging camps for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

The Zojila part of the tunnel is to be functional in 2026, but India's road transport and highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, hoped the work would be finished before the 2024 general election.

"It's a challenge I know, but I'm confident they can do it on time," he said.

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