Introduction to KashmirForum.org Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.
www.kashmirforum.org

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Case for Zojila Tunnel

Ashraf makes a strong argument in favor of the Zojila Tunnel

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 66, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Fran├žaise in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)

The Zojila Tunnel

Leh and Kargil districts at present remain totally cut off during six months or more in freezing winter. Apart from expediting the long awaited Zojila Tunnel, the opening of the routes to Tibet and Skardu needs to be considered on priority to end the unnatural siege!

Recently, many Ladakhis especially from Kargil district have been pleading for expediting the construction of a tunnel under the Zojila pass to provide year round access to Ladakh. In ancient times the greater Ladakh which encompasses all areas on two sides of the border was never really isolated and cut off even in the most severe winter. It is only after independence that the areas on this side of the border got totally blocked during winter. Normally, independence should have meant more freedom for travel but unfortunately the political conflict in the region has completely confined people in their permanent habitats especially in winter. The ancient routes connected Ladakh to Tibet through Demchok; to Yarqand and Kashgar through Karakoram Pass; and to Skardu and beyond through Kargil-Skardu link. In addition there was a summer link to Kashmir valley through the famous Zojila pass. There was also a link between Srinagar and Gilgit through Gurez called the Gilgit Transport Road, which was built by the British. This link was used to supply the garrison stationed in Gilgit. Ladakhi Buddhism is closely linked to Lahasa in Tibet. Dalai Lama who used to live in Patola Palace has always been the spiritual head for Ladakhi Buddhists also. A large number of lamas from Ladakh used to go to Lahasa for studies in Buddhism. In fact, after China invaded Tibet, quite a few lamas including the head lama of Hemis Monastery, the largest in Ladakh, got stuck there. These people used to travel along the Demchok route which got closed after the Tibetan upheaval. This route was also used for trade. It is said that the people from the other side used to come to Tsokhar Lake and a barter exchange of goods used to take place there.

Similarly, the route across Karakoram pass was linked to the famous Silk Route. A large number of caravans travelled on this route both in summer and winter. This was the most important link of Ladakh and Kashmir to Central Asia. During summer people used to travel through Nubra valley after crossing the Khardongla pass but in winter they used to go along the Shyok River up to Karakoram pass. This was probably the most adventurous journey in this part of the world. Ghulam Rasool Galwan in his book “Servant of the Sahibs” has very descriptively related a number of adventurous journeys he undertook with many foreign travellers.

Kargil-Skardu has been another route of great importance. In fact, the two sides of the border in this area have over seven thousand divided families. This route remains open throughout the year. It further connects with Gilgit and thence to Central Asia. These days the Karakoram highway passing through Gilgit is the main link of Pakistan with China and Central Asian countries. There is a regular bus service between Gilgit and Kashgar. In the past, Baltistan has been connected not only physically but socially also with our side of Ladakh especially the Kings of Ladakh. Gyal Khatoon of Baltistan was the mother of the famous Lion King Sengge Namgyal of Ladakh.

The Zojila route came into prominence only after the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947 when the state of Jammu & Kashmir was divided in two parts by the ceasefire line now called the Line of Actual Control. In the changed scenario of Ladakh, this was the only access to the outside world. A road was constructed by late Sonam Narboo over this difficult pass of over 11,000 feet. The construction of road in those days was an engineering marvel. Subsquently, Leh was connected with Manali in Himachal Pradesh. However, this road is worse than the one which crosses Zojila pass as it crosses three very high passes which close down in winter even earlier than Zojila. Presently plans are afoot to take a railway line on this route. This is welcome if it materialises but usually such projects through difficult terrain take decades and one is not certain when this one will fructify? It will also involve construction of many tunnels. Thus, at present Ladakhis on the Indian side are virtually imprisoned in a freezing prison during winter and the only relief are the air services started after the opening of the region for tourism. However, Kargil people do not have even this luxury. They have to travel all the way to Leh and wait for their turn to fly out. Only recently an Indian Air Force service has been started in winter which ferries passengers more or less like transportation of cattle. There are only two alternatives available to end the winter siege of Ladakhis. The most talked about and pending for a long time is the Zojila Tunnel. The Tunnel under Zojila is not a tall order given the technology and equipment presently available abroad. Europeans built a tunnel under the English Channel on which Euro-star train runs between London and Paris. The Mont Blanc tunnel which is about 11 kilometres long connects Italy to France. This tunnel is under the highest mountain in Europe which has many massive glaciers on top. Incidentally, I have had the opportunity of travelling through this tunnel between France and Italy. It hardly takes 10 minutes to traverse this tunnel which is connecting a motorway on two sides. There are separate tubes for incoming and outgoing traffic. This tunnel was constructed decades back. At present the equipment and technology has advanced further. There should be no technical hitch in constructing the tunnel which can be assigned to some global agency specialising in such projects. The only requirement is the political decision to undertake the project which has been in the pipeline from the day one of the construction of the road over Zojila. Unfortunately, such projects are undertaken in our part of the world only for protecting territory and for strategic reasons. No one bothers about the human angle. Had it been so, the tunnel should have been constructed long time back. The promise to construct the said tunnel has been made by no less a person than Jawahar Lal Nehru the then Prime Minister of India himself. Very recently the promise of a tunnel was not only renewed but reportedly measures were initiated for its execution. The Parliament is reported to have approved the construction of a 12 kilometre long tunnel at a cost of Rs. 1333 crores in March, 2007. Even global tenders are said to have been invited for the project but nothing further had been heard about it. However, the Parliament was informed on August 4, 2009, by the Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways that the contract of conducting feasibility studies for Zojila Tunnel has been allotted to M/S iBilt Technology, New Delhi and the study will take 18 months. This means that the actual construction is not slated to start soon and the access through the Tunnel may even take a decade or so! In fact, it may have been easier to fully upgrade and develop the road already constructed last year by the Defence authorities from Bandipore to Mushko valley in Drass crossing the valleys of Gurez and Tulail. However, this route being very near to LOC may not be dependable and safe from the security point of view!

The other alternative to end the winter siege of Ladakh till the Tunnels come up is to open all surface routes to neighbouring countries. This can be done if an agreement is reached between all the countries in the region for opening up all the surface routes. This requires an understanding on the pattern of the European Union where the borders have become irrelevant. Our leaders often talk about making borders irrelevant but when it comes to implementing these declarations, everyone develops cold feet! Such an understanding depends upon the politicians. There is only one way of making politicians realise the necessity and urgency of opening up the routes. They should be asked to stay for sometime in winter with the local people in the coldest places of Ladakh such as Drass. It is impossible to imagine the difficulties faced by the people in these remote regions in the severe weather conditions unless one practically faces these on the ground. Thus, there is utmost urgency to take immediate measures to relieve the sufferings of Ladakhis in winter. Choice is with the Government. Expedite the Tunnel and open up the routes!

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