Indian workers are toiling away to complete four tunnels connecting the Kashmir valley to Ladakh, a contested border region between India and China.

Hundreds of people are working on an ambitious project to drill tunnels and construct bridges connecting the picturesque Kashmir Valley with the cold and rugged terrains of Ladakh, a region that remains isolated for every six months due to massive snowfall.

A strategically important place, Ladakh shares de facto borders with Pakistan and China. The region generally depends on air supplies for half the year.

Kashmiri worker Tariq Ahmed Lone, wearing blue helmet, stands on a crane along with other worker employed by the Megha Engineering And Infrastructures Limited (MEIL) works inside the Nilgrar Tunnel in Baltal area northeast of Srinagar, Kashmir, Tuesday, September 28, 2021.
Kashmiri worker Tariq Ahmed Lone, wearing blue helmet, stands on a crane along with other worker employed by the Megha Engineering And Infrastructures Limited (MEIL) works inside the Nilgrar Tunnel in Baltal area northeast of Srinagar, Kashmir, Tuesday, September 28, 2021. (AP)

Four tunnels are projected to connect these two regions and the first one, 6.5-kilometer long, is already complete and will make the resort town of Sonamarg accessible during the winter months for the first time. 

A worker wearing face mask and helmet is seen inside the Nilgrar tunnel in Baltal area Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
A worker wearing face mask and helmet is seen inside the Nilgrar tunnel in Baltal area Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP)

Sonamarg marks the end of conifer-clad mountains before Ladakh begins across the rocky Zojila mountain pass.

A lone truck travels on the Zojila Pass, northeast of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.
A lone truck travels on the Zojila Pass, northeast of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (AP)

The last tunnel of the $932 million project, about 14-kilometers-long, will bypass the challenging Zojila pass and connect Sonamarg with Ladakh. 

A man works on the construction of a bridge which will connect Sonamarg to Nilgrar Tunnel in Baltal area, northeast of Srinagar, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
A man works on the construction of a bridge which will connect Sonamarg to Nilgrar Tunnel in Baltal area, northeast of Srinagar, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP)

After finishing, it will be the longest and highest tunnel at 3,485 meters in India.

Vehicles run through the Zojila Pass, northeast of Srinagar, Monday, September 27, 2021.
Vehicles run through the Zojila Pass, northeast of Srinagar, Monday, September 27, 2021. (AP)

“It’s not like any other construction work. It’s great learning,” said one of the workers, Tariq Ahmed Lone, as he helped at a drilling machine.

The Indian and Chinese army have been confronted in the Karakoram mountains in Ladakh for over 16 months along their de facto border, called the Line of Actual Control.

Mohammad Saleem, a drilling machine operator is covered with dust as he poses for picture at the entrance of Nilgrar Tunnel, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Mohammad Saleem, a drilling machine operator is covered with dust as he poses for picture at the entrance of Nilgrar Tunnel, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP)

Both countries have stationed tens of thousands of soldiers there, backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets.

According to Indian military planners, the tunnel project is extremely important for Ladakh thanks to providing logistics flexibility to the military and giving it operational and strategic mobility.

This photograph provided by the Indian Army, according to them shows Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region, in Ladakh along the India-China border on Monday, Feb.15, 2021.
This photograph provided by the Indian Army, according to them shows Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region, in Ladakh along the India-China border on Monday, Feb.15, 2021. (AP)

Politicians also see an opportunity in the project.

The Zojila part of the tunnel is to be functional in 2026, but India’s road transport and highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, said on a visit to the project site on Tuesday that he hopes the work will be finished before a 2024 general election.

Indian Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, center, accompanied with his wife in blue saree, looks at the under construction Zojila tunnel in Baltaal, northeast of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. The tunnel will connect Srinagar to the Ladakh region in a stretch that otherwise remains closed during the winter months because of snow.
Indian Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, center, accompanied with his wife in blue saree, looks at the under construction Zojila tunnel in Baltaal, northeast of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. The tunnel will connect Srinagar to the Ladakh region in a stretch that otherwise remains closed during the winter months because of snow. (AP)

“It’s a challenge I know, but I’m confident they can do it on time,” Gadkari said. “Obviously, we would want it to be finished before the elections.”

Source: AP