The importance of the Nyemo-Padum-Darcha road

Zangskar is a secluded valley in Ladakh that remains inaccessible for a major part of the year and its development lags behind the rest of the region. Road connectivity is an important ingredient to facilitate development in a region. In many ways, roads determine the future of an area. For instance, a mule tract converted into a vehicular road by the Indian Army from Baltal to Gumri and Zoji-la Top enabled the Indian Army to launch a surprise assault with M5 Stuart Light Tanks on 1 November, 1948 and recapture the pass from Pakistani soldiers. This highlights the importance of a vehicular road, especially in Ladakh. It took another decade before a vehicular road connected Leh with Kashmir and the rest of the country in August 1960. This road was constructed under the state budgetary plan. The construction of internal link roads, including the Nyemo-Padum road along Zangskar river, were proposed in the state’s Second Five-Year Plan (1956-1960). Nyemo-Padum road, was the first priority of Ven. Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, who was a Minister in the J&K government at the time. Construction of many roads started with a token budgetary allocation in this plan.

One person who deserves special mention in this regard is Shri Sonam Dawa Dimbir who oversaw the building of many roads in Ladakh despite budgetary constraints during his tenure as an engineer. After retirement, he served as Executive Councillor (EC) in the First Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh. At a public meeting he addressed as an EC at Pologround, Leh in 1996, he claimed that he would extend the budgetary allocation made for one kilometre of road to build five! He had a reputation of holding contractors accountable and making every rupee count.

The Indo-Chinese War in 1962 changed the developmental discourse in Ladakh. It led to the induction of Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for the development and maintenance of major roads in Ladakh from the Public Works Department (PWD). It was the PWD that had first proposed the Nyemo-Padum road and received sanction in the Third Five-Year Plan (1965-1970). A single lane rough road between Nyemo and Chilling was built during this plan period. Around this time, an influential legislator from Kashmir toured Ladakh and gave an adverse report about the Nyemo-Padum road to the state government, which cancelled funds for this road project. These funds were redirected to the Kargil-Padum road under the Fourth Five Year Plan (1970-1975). The Nyemo-Padum road stopped at Chilling. Due to meagre fund allocation, there was negligible progress on the Kargil-Padum road in the plan period of 1970-1975. The state government finally made adequate allocation in its Fifth Five Year Plan (1975-1980) due to the efforts of the then PWD minister, Shri Sonam Norboo.

The 234-kilometre Kargil-Padum road over Penzi-la has historical significance. The Parkachik-Padum section was completed in a record time of two working seasons as a member from each household in Zangskar was involved in the construction of this road in 1978-1979. Community heads were given the responsibility of managing wages and work execution. A tipper and a jeep crossed Penzi-la to enter Zangskar valley and reach Padum in November 1979. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in Zangskar’s history. In the summer of 1980, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama used this road for his first visit to the valley. This was a good omen and marked the dawn of prosperity for Zangskar. The linkage of Zangskar with the outside world through a vehicular road was the result of extraordinary public participation. The credit must also go to then Executive Engineer Shri Sonam Dawa Dimbir and his deputy Babu Tharchin Nomochok along with Zangskari leaders such as Gyalsras Nima Norbu, Pikongma Ka Namyal, Nawang Tashi etc. who mobilised the public. The road alignment to Penzi-la is an engineering marvel created by Babu Tharchin who surveyed, designed and supervised the construction of this road.

The Nyemo-Padum road, which was abandoned in the 1960s, was all but forgotten as attention was focussed on the Kargil-Padum road in this period. In 1980, Shri P. Namgyal was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) from Ladakh and started discussions within Government of India about the importance of the Nyemo-Padum road with an extension to Darcha. Then in 1988, during his second term he became junior Minister for Surface Transport, Government of India. Under his leadership, the ministry sanctioned resources for the Nyemo-Padum road at an estimated cost of INR 36 crore (INR 360 million) and the state government was asked to cover 50% of the cost. This news received wide coverage in the media and sent shockwaves through the corridors of power in the state government. I was a Member of Legislative Assembly from Leh at the time and my counterpart from Kargil opposed this road. I tried my best to explain the importance of this road and its benefits to Kargil and Leh as it would provide a shorter route to Manali while also supporting development in Zangskar. Unfortunately, the project faced widespread opposition and I received no support from any quarter. Thus, the allocation file for 50% of the cost was ‘lost’ in the Civil Secretariat. Unfortunately, P. Namgyal lost the general election in 1989 to the Indian Parliament and the road project was forgotten once again.

P. Namgyal was once again elected as MP from Ladakh in 1996. He once again took up the Nyemo-Padum road with Government of India, which in turn recommended it along with other projects for a developmental project grant to Government of Japan. The Japanese government deputed a team from Japan International Cooperation Agency in late 1996 to visit Ladakh and study the Nyemo-Padum road. The team carried out a cost-benefit analysis and argued that the Nyemo-Padum road would only be used by a few thousand vehicles each year, while a four lane-New Nizamuddin bridge over Yamuna river in Delhi would cost the same and be used by a million vehicles daily. The New Nizamuddin bridge was built in two years by February 1998 and named Indo-Japan Friendship bridge. The Nyemo-Padum road remained incomplete.

The road has been one of the main demands by the people of Zansgkar along with helicopter service and district status. This road would provide all-weather road connectivity to the valley and the distance is significantly shorter than the Padum-Kargil road.

In the wake of the 1999 Kargil War, Government of India established the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) on 29 July, 1999 to identify issues that need to be addressed to avoid such challenges in the future. The KRC was chaired by Shri K. Subramanyam, the then Chairman of National Security Council Advisory Board and included three experts as members. The KRC completed its report in five months. During their visits to Ladakh, the committee members interacted with various Ladakhi leaders. During my conversation with them, I put forth several points including the need for all-weather road connectivity for Zangskar, which echoed the demands of Zangskaris led by Ka Namgyal Pekongma. All the people who interacted with the KRC underlined the need for secure all-season road connectivity between Ladakh and the rest of the country. The Nyemo-Padum-Darcha road is the most viable option in this regard. This road will reduce travel time between Leh and Manali to nine hours from the current 19 hours. A four-km tunnel under Shingo-la can further reduce the travel time. Most importantly, this road will provide all-weather access to Ladakh with minimal intervention where other alternatives require longer and multiple tunnels.

Based on KRC’s recommendations, the Nyemo-Darcha road was formally handed over to BRO in 2001 and it has been under construction since. However, road-work has progressed at a very sluggish pace. In this period, the road reached a few kilometres beyond Chilling at the threshold of a 30-km challenging rocky stretch between Chilling and Lingshed Tokpo. On the other side, the road from Padum has reached Lingshed Tokpo. For some reason, BRO has developed a longer route that circumvents this stretch and travels through Langru, Wanla, Fanji-la, Sumdo, Photoksar, and Lingshed Tokpo. This road traverses Sirsir-la (16,370 ft above mean sea level) and Singge-la (16,227 ft amsl) between Sumdo Photoksar and Photoksar Yulchung. While this road provides connectivity to these remote areas, it needlessly increases the length of the Nyemo-Padum road and dilutes some of its advantages. It was the completion of this route that the Hon`ble MP from Ladakh, Shri Jamyang Tsering Namgyal recently applauded in the Parliament.

It is a national failure that only 256.72 km of the total 297 km has been completed so far. The initial estimated cost for the Nyemo-Darcha road was INR 251 crore (INR 25.1 billion) with a deadline of 2012. This was revised to INR 2,276.13 crore (INR 227.6 billion) in 2019. The revised budget probably includes the proposed Shingo-la tunnel. The project deadline is now in 2025 and includes blacktopping and double-laning as a national highway, which remain a distant dream. It reminds me of the Stakna Mini Hydel Project, which was started in the late 1960s by the state government. It was to be completed in three years at a cost of INR 2.31 crore (INR 23.1 million) and generate 4 MW of power each year. The project was completed after 18 years at a cost of INR 25 crore (INR 250 million) and generated 1.5 MW of electricity for a few years before being abandoned. I hope that the Nyemo-Darcha road does not meet the same fate and meets the 2025 deadline to boost India’s national interests along with Ladakh’s general development, especially Zangskar.

By Tsering Samphel

Tsering Samphel is a former Member of Legislative Assembly from Leh