Ladakh’s Winter Incarceration
By Meha Dixit
19 January, 2011
More than ten years have passed since the Kargil War. Prior to the war, scores of Indians hadn’t even heard about Kargil. But as the war raged, images of Kargil flashed across the world. Kargil became synonymous with India’s victory against Pakistan. A certain mystique envelops Kargil’s landscape and to the outside world it seems merely tantamount to a theater of war. Sadly, the demand of Ladakhis for round the year connectivity seems to have been pushed beneath the gleam of India’s Kargil victory. Ladakh today stands as an isolated barren island of forgotten people disconnected from rest of the country.
Ladakh which is a part of Jammu & Kashmir consists of two districts- Kargil and Leh. Ladakh is connected to the rest of India via Jammu-Srinagar-Zojila-Kargil and Manali-Serchu- Leh axes. Heavy rains and avalanche prone areas on both sides of the various passes along these axes lead to cutting off of both these axes during the winter season. Although Zojila Pass connects Kargil with the rest of India, however, due to harsh conditions during winters the pass closes for around six months disconnecting Kargil from rest of the country and the world. While Leh has a well-functioning airport, the airport in Kargil is yet to be utilised for commercial flight service. Kargil is even more poorly connected than Leh to the rest of the country. Nasir Munshi, Councilor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, points out, as a result of poor connectivity the region’s socio-economic conditions have been grossly affected and this adversely affects sustainability. He continues, therefore, there is an urgent need to improve both the road and air connectivity to Kargil. A tunnel at Zojila will open up Kargil-Leh sector throughout the year.
Kargil’s economy which includes tourism is dependent on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Kargil has huge potential for winter sports and winter tourism. However, due to inaccessibility, tourism, development, education and health sector have lagged behind and six months’ isolation during winters makes the situation worse. As far as the health sector is concerned, in case of emergencies, people of this isolated district remain helpless. In addition, Kargil has strategic relevance since it is a border district which shares its border with Pakistan. Kargil’s isolation from the rest of India is a major security threat.
For years now Ladakhis, especially from Kargil have been calling for the construction of a tunnel through the Zojila pass or an all weather road. MA Naik, Brig Chief Engineer, Project Himank who has dealt with the feasibility of the tunnel construction rightly points out, the tunnel will contribute to the “upliftment of local population, improvement in over all socio-economic development of the Ladakh region and also fulfill the strategic requirement of the country”. Zojila Tunnel project (around 15 Kms in length) connecting Ladakh with Kashmir, would contribute to easy and free movement of defence and civilian traffic as well as goods, especially during the harsh winters when Kargil remains absolutely cut off from the rest of India. Zojila tunnel can make the Zojila axis all weather road to Leh which is likely to be cost effective and economical as compared to Rohtang Tunnel. This is the only pass along this axis which closes during winters while Namikala and Fatula passes on this axis remain open throughout winters.
The Indian state has been active in the development and reconstruction work in a number of neighbouring states such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka and for this purpose has donated large sums of money to these countries. However, round the year connectivity demand of the Ladakhi people seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Meha Dixit is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a founding member of Kindling Accessibility Initiatives in Ladakh. email: firstname.lastname@example.org