Srinagar: What could not be started by the previous political dispensations in 15 years of struggle, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari virtually did the first blast to start work on the Zojila tunnel which will be the last hurdle to make Srinagar-Leh highway all year connected.

On Thursday, Gadkari not only gave orders for the work, but also said that it would be completed ahead of the scheduled time given to the contractors. This tunnel has assumed more importance after the recent standoff with PLA in eastern Ladakh.

The virtual inauguration to start work on the Zojila tunnel was carried out at the Nilgrath area of District Ganderbal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone at Leh and the work was commenced in 2018, but the contractor stopped work after one year due to financial problems and cost escalation. The government terminated his contract and the company had asked for a revised contract to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore, instead of earlier allotted work of Rs 6,000 crore.

Much to the surprise of media circles, a company namely Mega Engineering & Infrastructure Limited quoted its quoted rate of Rs 4509.50 crore which claimed time of completion in six years.

Gadkari said, “The Zojila stretch is strategically important to the defence of our country. It will not only provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar, Drass, Kargil and Leh, but it will also further strengthen the economic and social-cultural integration of both the Union Territories.”

Due to the standoff with the Chinese army, this National Highway-1 has assumed significance and when the tunnel is completed, it will not only reduce the travel time between Srinagar and Leh, but also provide an all-weather road to the army also.

Gadkari is known for keeping his promises and while speaking on the occasion, he said that the Zojila tunnel would be completed before the next Lok Sabha elections and added that Prime Minister Modi will inaugurate it.

The project was started by the Manmohan Singh government in 2013 and the contractors were given six years to complete the project. However, due to the tough terrain and due to complaints by the work force that had to work at an altitude of 4,000 metres, the work was stopped.

It is in place to mention that the project was first conceived in 2005. It was announced in 2013 after the Border Roads Organization (BRO) prepared its Detailed Project Report. Over the last seven years, the project has seen many roadblocks and work could not be started. When the tenders were floated initially, no private player came forward for the Zojila tunnel project. The bids were invited three times, but no private contracting firm came to participate.

In 2016, the project was handed over to the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd, a unit of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, from BRO in order to start work on this important tunnel project. However, work was not started and finally the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways annulled the project’s bidding process for the sixth time in August 2019, citing “administrative reasons”.

The project was awarded to Megha Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd, the lowest bidder, and with virtual inauguration for the work to start, Nitin Gadkari has expressed hope that finally the tunnel would be a reality.