One year after Galwan clash, defence ministry to decide on Shinkun La tunnel

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
May 19, 2021 10:34 AM IST

While the Borders Roads Organization wants a shorter 4.5km tunnel under the 5,091 metre pass on the existing road alignment readied by 2024, the NHIDCL prefers an elaborate 13.5km tunnel and a new road to secure the shortest route on Manali-Darcha-Padun-Nimmu-Leh axis.

A year after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transgressed into Gogra-Hot Springs and Pangong Tso area of eastern Ladakh, the Union defence ministry is on the verge of deciding the alignment of strategic Nimmu-Padum-Darcha road to feed supplies to Indian military formations in Ladakh sector. The new alignment will be the third axis to Ladakh and will be least exposed to the adversary as compared to Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil axis and Manali-Upshi-Leh axis.

Army convoy roughs it out on a high mountain pass to Ladakh sector. (HT photo)
Army convoy roughs it out on a high mountain pass to Ladakh sector. (HT photo)

According to officials in roads and highways and defence ministries, the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) have already made separate presentations before the top officials of the defence ministry last March and left the latter to decide on the alignment.

Key to this new alignment is a proposed tunnel under 16,703-feet Shingo or Shinkun La, which gets snowed in and blocks traffic movement during at least three winter months. Situated on the border between Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, the high mountain pass has snow round-the-year with BRO constructing motorable roads on both sides of the pass.

According to geology study conducted by Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment on behalf of the BRO, the Manali based institute recommended three options of constructing tunnels to obviate the pass. The first option was a 4.25km tunnel located at an distance of 36.5km from Darcha (99 km stone on Manali-Sarchu road). The north portal of the proposed tunnel is 41km from Darcha. The other two proposed options are 7km tunnel and a 13.81km tunnel.

For the BRO, the 4.25km tunnel is a preferred option as it addresses the most difficult portion of the road and remaining road could be kept open with snow clearance effort and some avalanche structures. The time for construction of this tunnel, which is already on the road axis, will be three working seasons and the road-tunnel will be completed by 2024.

According to BRO, this option offers the best gradient, least overburden and least support requirements with Afcons, who constructed the Atal Tunnel, moving their equipment to build the tunnel under Shinkun la on a war footing.

The NHIDCL, under the ministry of surface transport, on its part has suggested an altogether new road alignment, north-east of the present axis with a 13.5km tunnel under Shinkun La. Projecting this as a shortest route linking Atal Tunnel to the Darcha-Padun-Nimmu road, the NHDCL proposal involves building access roads on both sides to the proposed 13.5 km tunnel, which will take many a season to complete. The NHIDCL is preparing a detailed project report on the new route.

While the defence ministry is still to take a decision on the two proposals, fact remains is that the third route is an urgent requirement given the Chinese Army seriously ramping up military infrastructure all along the 3,488km Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Although the disengagement is completed between the two armies in Pangong Tso, the Western Theatre Command of PLA continues to remain deployed in eastern Ladakh and depth areas. The disengagement at Gogra-Hot Springs is still work in progress and any possibility of a LAC flare-up is not beyond the realms of military possibility. Time is running out on the Shinkun La tunnel.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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