Crossing the tough, and perennially snow-bound Zoji la Pass in Jammu and Kashmir will become easier in the near future with construction set to begin in May on a 14.1-km-long, state-of-the-art tunnel. The project could take up to seven years to complete.

The pass, located at a height of 12,000 feet, is on National Highway 1 between Srinagar and Leh in the western section of the Himalayan mountain ranges.

The bi-way tunnel, touted as South Asia’s longest when ready, will reduce travel time from three hours to a mere 15 minutes, said Anand Kumar, Managing Director, National Highways Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL), the “Mini Ratna” company entrusted with the task.

NHIDCL was given the job of implementing the tunnel project after the Ministry of Road Transport, Highways and Shipping on an earlier occasion failed to undertake it. Kumar said they are now inviting bidders from across the globe for the project.

The tunnel would have some unique features like pedestrian safety passages every 250 metres, and vehicular safety passage at every 750 metres.

The road inside the tunnel will also have other features like lay-bys — an area at the side where vehicles may pull off and stop — and emergency telephone and communication systems at emergency exits at intervals of 125 m.

The tunnel, which will provide a new lifeline to the locals in terms of road connectivity, will also have interior and external lighting, CCTV cameras, emergency guidance lamps and proper vehicle guidance systems. It will also be equipped to tackle fire incidents.

Earlier, NHIDCL was to undertake the project on an annuity basis, when the cost is paid back later. But now they will undertake it in EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) mode, which Kumar says will make the work easier.

“Till now the Border Roads Organisation was handling this particular project. However, as the Ministry wanted to fast-track the work, it has been handed over to the NHIDCL. We till now have done two road shows in Delhi and Hyderabad to invite bidders for the Zoji La tunnel construction,” Kumar told IANS in his office here.

Kumar, a 1984-batch IAS officer of the Kerala cadre, said the project cost will be around Rs 8,000 crore.

“The construction cost would around Rs 5,900 crore and the remainder would be for other purposes, such as land acquisition,” said Kumar.

The Zoji La pass remains snow clad for most part of the year, rendering road connectivity with Ladakh impossible for seven or eight months.

The pass is not just vital for the locals but is strategically crucial for the security of India’s northern frontier.

Once it is completed, the tunnel with its advanced infrastructure will be something the country can be proud of, Kumar said.

“Indian ambassadors abroad and foreign envoys in India have been informed about the Zoji La tunnel construction project. The aim is to bring potential companies to execute the work,” he added.

NHIDCL has completed all the land acquisition and forest diversions for the project, Kumar said.

“The interested bidders for Zoji La tunnel have said they will be able to complete the work in seven years. However, we have decided to give 10 per cent bonus to the firm that can complete the work in six years,” he added.

An advance fee of 15 per cent will be given to the firm that wins the contract.

“If every thing goes well, we wish to award the work by April and get the work started in May, immediately after the snow starts melting. This is not a small project; so efforts are on to execute it as soon as possible,” said Kumar.