Ladakh’s mutilated highway

Roads are the lifeline of a region, especially places like Ladakh that are isolated due to their terrain. In this regard, Ladakh has suffered from neglect over several decades especially in terms of the highway that connects Ladakh with Kashmir and the rest of India. This road travels over Zoji-la and remains open only for a part of the year as it gets blocked by snow in the winter months.

The vehicular road over Zoji-la roughly traces the historical trekking path that people used in the past to travel between Ladakh and Kashmir valley. Around 30 to 40km of this highway remains unpaved and rough to this day. While it traverses some challenging terrain, the road condition has been worsened by the ill-conceived road widening efforts, which has led to seemingly random deforestation and cutting of rocks along this road.

As mentioned earlier, Zoji-la remains impassable through the winter when snow blocks the pass. There has been a longstanding demand to make a tunnel below Zoji-la to provide year-round road connectivity to Ladakh, especially Kargil district which lacks any form of connectivity in the winter except by air from the airport in neighbouring Leh district. The people of Kargil have been demanding a tunnel under Zoji-la for the last 50 years. Unfortunately, Government of India has always been lukewarm to this demand. Given the important role played by Ladakhis, especially in Kargil, during the 1971 and 1999 conflicts with Pakistan, it is pertinent that Government of India fulfils this longstanding demand and builds a tunnel under Zoji-la without further delay. In addition, the tunnel will also help India strengthen connectivity with Ladakh, which remains a geo-strategically important frontier region for India.

I have also failed to understand why a major part of the current road has been built on the sheltered slopes of the mountain, which remain in the shade. This includes the stretch from Gumberi to Mina Marg and from Thusgam to Kargil. In these areas, the snow remains longer than areas that receive direct sunlight. These areas are also more prone to rockslides. The snow on the other face melts faster and it is generally less rocky and poses fewer risks. The journey along this road will be much more comfortable and safer if this road is planned better and built on the other side of the slope.

The Zoji-la tunnel is crucial in terms of national security. An alternative road exists from Drass over Umba-la to Sanku that was made after the Kargil War in 1999 when the main highway came under shelling along parts of its route. However, this road is also visible from across the Line of Control and remains within shelling range. It addition it also passes over a relatively high and difficult pass, remains covered by snow in the winter, and passes through uninhabited areas with no rest-stops or other facilities as compared to the original road. Currently, the route is popular only with biking and trekking groups, and not used by general traffic. Government of India might be satisfied that there is a second route to link Ladakh via Manali in Himachal Pradesh. However, this route has many passes, which are covered by snow each winter and a major part of the route travels through uninhabited areas. So while this road is a viable alternative route, it is relatively more difficult than the road over Zoji-la.

Thankfully, Ladakh receives relatively little rainfall. Otherwise, the Kargil-Leh road would be closed after each shower. This road also lacks basic infrastructure. For instance, you will see a closed circuit camera in Khaltse market but it is a major challenge to find a rest area or wash room and a clean drinking water point. Who should be responsible for such basic necessities: The road authorities or the notified area community?

Perhaps one of the problems with roads in Ladakh is that important persons, decision-makers and policy-makers who visit Ladakh no longer use this highway. They generally opt to fly in and out of Leh. As a result, none of them have a first-hand experience of the challenges posed by the current road infrastructure in Ladakh. In my opinion, such first-hand experience would make a big difference and would be instrumental in the development of Zoji-la tunnel and to improve the conditions of roads in Ladakh.

Unfortunately, despite repeated demands from the people of Ladakh and our so-called leaders, we are nowhere close to a tunnel below Zoji-la. If this tunnel were to become a reality, it will address many of the problems people face in Ladakh. This includes sourcing fresh vegetables and fruits, access to medical facilities, sourcing of construction material, travel option for students studying outside Ladakh etc. Most importantly, the tunnel will strengthen India’s national security interests, especially in the context of Pakistan and China with which Ladakh shares a frontier.

The funds that have been allotted for road widening in Ladakh over the last few decades, would probably suffice to make tunnels under Zoji-la , Namika-la, Foto-la (on the Kargil-Leh route), Khardzong-la (which connects Leh town with Nubra valley) and Pensi-la.(between Kargil and Zangskar).

The current ‘widened’ highway between Kargil and Leh is dotted with warnings of ‘stone pelting area’, ‘slide prone area, ‘sharp curve’, ‘accident-prone area’ etc. If these are known challenges along the road, why have measures not been implemented to mitigate these risks? Or, have these problems arisen due to damage caused to the mountain-faces on which these roads are located?

In this matter, we must keep national security as our main focus along with providing services to local communities. In this regard, India is far behind its eastern neighbour, China, which is said to have built quality motorable roads right till its frontier regions. Similarly, China has constructed a railway line traversing 2,000 km to connect the Tibetan Autonomous Region with Beijing. This railway line traverses tough terrain with dramatic temperature variations and climatic conditions. Interestingly, this railway line remains operational throughout the year. Similarly, the Karakoram highway, which connects Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Pakistan while traversing through the mighty Karakoram mountain range, also remains open throughout the year.

During my own travels in Malaysia, I have driven on the highway between the capital Kuala Lumpur and the tropical highland region of Genting. Around 90 km of this highway passes through thick rainforest and hilly terrain. However, this road has been built without damaging the environment around it and where some intervention was not-avoidable, one can see that mitigation measures have been implemented. Since Malaysia is a tropical country, it receives heavy rains. The road design has taken these factors into account to ensure that the road is safe, beautiful, and environment-friendly. I cannot help wondering why we are not able to show the same foresight and sensitivity in our infrastructure projects in Ladakh.

Photograph and text by Dr. (Kacho) Akbar Khan

Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan is a retired Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist and is based in Kargil.