The arduous trek to Kashmir may soon be a thing of the past. A new passage to Srinagar now under construction will not only bring the regions of Jammu and Kashmir closer but will also end the isolation of the valley from the rest of the country.
A number of state-of-the-art tunnels are being dug through the Pir Panjal ranges, among others, for easy roadways and a pioneering railway line both of which will give easy access to the valley.
Even as the railways are planning a 90-km-long network of tunnels, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has undertaken a project to upgrade the present national highway (NH 44) stretch from Jammu to Srinagar into four lanes. The project includes two major tunnels.
The 288-km distance between Jammu and Srinagar will be reduced to 238 km but more importantly the 10-hour journey will be covered in just about five hours, avoiding perilous points such as Khooni Nala (bloody path) where shooting stones slide at the speed of a bullet taking a heavy toll of life. At least, 10 people have lost their lives at such points in January-February.
The two tunnels will also end the snow-related traffic jams that last several days. The Chenani-Nashri Tunnel which is being blasted through the Mury formation range of the Shivalik range — derived from Mury village in Pakistan from where it starts — at an elevation of 1.2 km is 9 km long and will be the longest tunnel in the country when completed in 2016, the deadline for the entire project estimated to cost Rs. 10,600 crore.
The proposed two-lane tunnel with a separate escape route avoids Patnitop, a tourist spot during the winter for its snow, and the steep Nagroda bypass which the State government declared unfit for use after truck drivers found it difficult to negotiate not only the steep gradient but also the sharp and narrow bends on the range.
“It will save us enormous time, about Rs. 250 in fuel, wear and tear and several other bottlenecks on each trip,” said truck driver Mushtaq Ali.
However, twin tunnels with inbuilt escape routes in case of snow storm or blizzards, are being provided through Pir Panjal from Banihal to Quazigund at an elevation of 1.8 km. Though their entrances are not free from snow, experts maintain clearing a four-lane road of snow would be much easier than a two-lane one.
Moreover, the mountains are steep and unstable posing a challenge to travellers. Engineers also consider it difficult to carve out a single four-lane road and intend to adopt the split road technology separating the ascending and descending stretches which will require erecting flexible steel tunnels during the construction period to protect existing traffic from falling stones.
Every one in Kashmir is eagerly looking forward to the completion of the project, with the owner of a cricket bat manufacturing firm even having surrendered his land facing the national highway. One is not sure whether he was convinced by the official explanation of the roads being completed by 2014 and the tunnels by 2016 which will ensure smooth travel on this stretch and give his business a fillip.
The four-year wait might get prolonged given that the NHAI is yet to award the contract for the 43-km-long Udhampur-Ramban and 36-km-long Ramban-Banihal stretches due to various reasons, including the fact these are among the toughest sections of the project.
Virendra Singh, director of the project, however, said the proposals were likely to be cleared with revised cost estimates by the Union government and would be completed by June 2014.
Timely clearance and construction of the two stretches is imperative as their traffic carrying capacity has to match those of the other stretches which would be opened as and when completed. A failure will lead to a major congestion at the two ends.