Third Road Axis to Leh – Creating All Weather Manali-Zanskar-Leh Road

Amid the current border tension with China in Ladakh, road infrastructure projects have got a push and the 297-km long Nimmu – Padum – Darcha road that was identified as the third route to Ladakh in 2001-02 is being considered most critical in wake of the dual threat from Pakistan and China

Introduction

The newly formed Union Territory of Ladakh (UToL) is connected to the rest of India through two major highways. One of these is 422 km National Highway 1, which runs from Srinagar to the Leh, the capital of the  UToL. Srinagar is itself connected to the rest of India through National Highway 44 (NH-44). Srinagar-Leh highway navigates through three high mountain passes i.e. Zoji La ( 11,575 ft), Namika La (12,139 ft) and Fotu La (13,478 ft). While Fotu La is higher, Zoji La presents a bigger challenge because of altitude gain while climbing up from the Srinagar valley to enter the UToL across the Himalayan range.

The Government of India (GOI) had in 2018 approved a 14.5km Zoji La tunnel which would run below the pass and provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Kargil. The construction on this tunnel has recently commenced.

Zoji La tunnel details (source: Times of India)

The other major highway connecting Ladakh with rest of India is the 490 km Manali-Leh highway. About 225 km of this highway falls in Himachal Pradesh while rest of it lies in UToL. This road is maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and was constructed with an express purpose of providing alternate access to Ladakh for the Indian Army. A major challenge of this road is the presence of five major mountain passes. While Rohtang Pass (13, 058 ft) and Baralacha La (16,500 ft) fall in Himachal Pradesh, other three passes, Nakee La (15,547 ft), Lachulung La (16,616 ft) and Tanglang La (17,480 ft) fall in UToL.  

The map below shows the alignment of the Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh roads and the location of the aforementioned mountain passes on the alignment. It also shows the existing road connectivity between Padum (administrative center of Zanskar Valley) and Leh via Kargil. Also shown on the map is Shinku La/Shingo La; the new road alignment connecting Manali with Leh will go over this pass. Before the advent of the new road, a trail connected Lahual & Spiti in Himachal with Zanskar in Ladakh.

An 8.8 km tunnel below the Rohtang Pass (named as Atal tunnel after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee) has recently become operational. In addition to reducing the travel distance, this tunnel will provide year-round connectivity between Manali and Keylong districts of Himachal Pradesh. At present, Rohtang pass is open to traffic only for about 7 months in a year from May to November. For rest of the period, it is covered in deep snow.

Both of the existing highways connecting Leh with mainland come with their unique challenges.

The Srinagar-Leh highway runs very close to the alignment of Line of Control (LOC) between the Drass and Kargil stretch. Interdiction of this road can cut-off land link between rest of the country and the affected areas and put pressure on the Indian Army in this as well as adjoining sectors. And as we saw during Kargil War in 1999, one of the major Pakistani aims was interdiction of Srinagar-Leh highway with the objective of degrading Indian capability to maintain troops in Leh and Siachen sectors

The map below shows the alignment of Srinagar-Leh highway with respect to Line-of-Control (LOC). As can be seen on the map, after crossing over the Zoji La pass, the national highway at places runs very close to the LOC.

Apart from the above, with Zoji La and Fotu La passes getting covered in deep snow in winter, connectivity remains an issue as roads are closed for 5-6 months at a stretch. Zoji La tunnel (which is still 5-6 years away from completion) will only provide all weather connectivity between Srinagar and Kargil; beyond this, the Kargil – Leh road still has two mountain passes, Namika La and Fotu La, respectively.

Similarly, in case of Manali – Leh highway, the Atal tunnel will help to bypass only one of the four major passes on this alignment. Other three passes will continue to remain snow-bound during winters, impeding all-year connectivity.

Zanskar  – An Isolated Valley

Padum (administrative center of Zanskar Valley) (pic source: http://blog.shantitravel.com/)

Zanskar valley is located south-east of Kargil and is connected to it by National Highway 301. The 234 km long NH301 starts from the town of Kargil and terminates at Padum, which is the headquarters of Zanskar Tehsil and the main town in the valley; Zanskar is one of the two Tehsils under Kargil district. It takes between 10-12 hours to complete this road journey.

Zanskar river is formed when its two main tributaries, Stod or Doda river meets the Lungnak river close to Padum. While Stod/Doda river originates at Pensi La pass on Kargil-Padum road, Lungnak river originates when two other smaller rivers meet at a place called Purne, south-east of Padum. These two rivers are Tsarap Chu (which originates close to Baralacha La pass on Himachal-Ladakh border) and Kargiak river (which originates at Shinku La/Shingo La pass). 

Zanskar river flows towards north and after passing mostly through narrow gorges, it meets Indus river at a place called Nimmu, which is about 35 km west of Leh on the Srinagar-Leh highway.

Zanskar valley is separated from Himachal Pradesh by the Himalayan range while Zanskar range separates it from Indus river basin along which Leh and other important towns are located. Because of the presence of these two high altitude mountains ranges, Zanskar Valley does not have direct road connectivity with either Leh or Himachal Pradesh.

For example, while the aerial distance between Padum and Leh is hardly 100 km, the road distance is around 450 km.  This is because there is no direct connectivity between the Zanskar valley and Leh. People first must go to Kargil and from there, onward to Leh. This journey takes about 2-days’ time

Historically, the summertime connectivity between Zanskar valley and Leh was through mountain trails. This route followed the Zanskar river only partially and deviated towards the Lingshed monastery and then through high altitude passes like Singge La (Lion Pass!), Sirsir La etc. reached a place called Langru which is about 80 km west of Nimmoo. In winter, when the water in the Zanskar river froze, people could travel on the frozen river to go north towards Nimmoo, and then Leh. The famous ‘Chadar Trek’ involves traveling inland along the frozen Zanskar river in winter.

Frozen Zanskar River with trekkers (source: https://www.ladakhzanskartrekking.com/)

Similarly, the aerial distance between Padum and Keylong in Himachal Pradesh (Keylong lies on Manali-Leh highway) is only 100 km but there is no road connectivity between these two towns. Historically, and even today to some extent, people of Zanskar and its side valleys cross over to Himachal Pradesh side after negotiating the 16,703 feet high Shinku La/Shingo La pass. This mountain route connects Darcha in Himachal Pradesh (on Manali-Leh Highway) with Padum and takes few days to complete. Manali is about 148 km from Darcha and people can avail transport from Darcha towards Keylong and then, Manali.

The map below shows the trail from Padum towards Darcha across the Shingo La/Shinku La pass.

If people want to use the land route, they will have to travel from Padum to Kargil, then Leh and then travel along the Leh-Manali highway. This is almost a 1,000 km one-way trip and will easily take few days. Not to mention that the cost involved in this circuitous and long road trip might not be bearable by many people.

Nimmu – Padum – Darcha Road (NPD Road)

After the Kargil war, a need was felt for an alternate route to service the Kargil sector. The Manali-Leh route was long and with presence of five high altitude mountain passes, it was closed for several months every year.

Consequently, 297km long Nimmu-Padum-Darcha road (hereafter referred to as NPD road) was identified as the third axis to connect Ladakh with rest of the country. Preliminary work on the project started in 2002 while the project was given approval in 2004. Initial budget estimate was Rs 251 Crore and the project was expected to be completed by 2012.

As of July 2019, the project cost had been revised to Rs 2,276.13 Crores and of 297 km, connectivity 256.72 km had been achieved. The project is expected to complete by 2025. This includes black-topping of the road and double-lane as per national highway standards.

The road starts at Nimmu, which is about 35 km before Leh on the Leh-Srinagar road. The confluence of Zanskar and Indus river is located close to Nimmu. From Nimmu, the proposed road follows the course of Zanskar river to enter the Zanskar valley till Padum. From Padum, the road alignment moves in a south-easterly direction along the Lungnak river till Purne village. From here, it then continues along the Kurgiakh river till the Shinku La/Shingo La pass (16,703 feet). This pass sits on the boundary between UToL and Himachal Pradesh. From here, the road travels further and meets the Manali-Leh highway at Darcha.

The map below shows the alignment of the NPD road with key landmarks.

While the overall development of the road is responsibility of Border Roads Organization, the construction can be divided into two broad segments – the 39.6 km stretch of road development from Darcha to Shinku La/Shingo La pass (which falls in Himachal Pradesh) is under 38 Border Road Task Force (38 BRTF) of Project Deepak. Balance road development is the responsibility of 762 Border Road Task Force (762 BRTF) of Project Vijayak.

Images of construction activity – 01 (source: India Today/Manjeet Negi)

Current Status of the Road

For this analysis and on ground development, we can divide the NPD road into three broad segments. These are as follows:

  • Darcha – Shinku La/Shingo La Road
  • Shinku La/Shingo La – Padum Road
  • Nimmu – Padum road

The details of the above mentioned sections of the NPD road are as follows:

Darcha – Shinku La/Shingo La Road

While the NPD road was approved in 2002, the work on 39.6 Km Darcha-Shinku La/Shingo La road started sometime in 2007-2008. However, the pace of construction was slow and the formation cutting till the Shinku-La/Shingo La pass was most likely achieved only in 2015-16 period and the road was constructed by 2019. First 4×4 light vehicles were permitted to reach up to the pass from Darcha in 2015.

The need for a tunnel under Shinku La/Shingo La pass was identified way back in 2006-2007 and tenders for technical feasibility were also floated and L1 bidder was also identified by 2009. However, it seems no further work was done, and feasibility of a tunnel is being still under evaluation. The tunnel is expected to be 4km long.

Shinku La/Shingo La – Padum Road

The stretch between Shinku La/Shingo La pass and Padum was completed in 2019 with first civilian 4×4 light vehicle traversing the Darcha-Shinku La/Shingo La-Padum axis in late 2019. Before this, a two-wheeler adventure rally had also been conducted where 10-motorcyles had travelled along this road from Himachal Pradesh. Road widening is in progress and next step is to black-top the road. However, available literature shows that the road is not yet in shape to take heavy vehicular traffic and it still requires some work before proper connectivity can be achieved between Padum and Darcha.

Distance between Shinku La/Shingo La and Padum is 104 km.

Shinku La – Zansar Road (source: https://footloosedev.com/shinkula-pass/)

Nimmu – Padum road (Partial completion and Alternate Alignment)

The road-length between Nimmu and Padum is 156 km. Till Padum, the entire road moves along the Zanskar river. Starting from Nimmu, about 48 km stretch of road has been completed till some distance ahead of Chilling village. From here, a stretch of about 30 odd kilometres till Nerak village is under construction.

In the meanwhile, BRO has created one more road which connects with Nerak village, and from there, connects further with Padum.

This road starts from a place called as Langru on Leh-Srinagar highway (about 80 km west of Nimmoo) and then follows the following alignment:

  • Langru – Wangla – Phonjila – Sumdo  – Photoksar  – Yalchung  – Nerak
  • Between Sumdo and Photoksar is 16,370 ft high Sirisir La pass.
  • Between Photoksar and Yulchung is 16,227 feet high Singge La pass.

While connectivity between Nerak village was achieved by 2017, the ~10 km stretch of road ahead of Nerak villages seems to have been recently completed. This has now provided connectivity between Langru on Srinagar-Leh highway to Darcha in Himachal Pradesh.

So, the current operational alignment is Langru – Padum – Darcha.

BRO now intends to start working on incomplete stretch between Nerak – Chilling on the Nimmoo-Nerak alignment from Nerak village side as well to ensure faster completion of the road.

The NPD road is expected to be completed in all aspects, including National Highway Double Lane (NHDL) for a certain portion of the road, by 2025.

The map below shows the alignment of the planned NPD road from Zanskar Valley towards Nimmo, and the alternate alignment from Nerak village which has been operationalized recently.

Strategic Significance

The NPD road not only provides a third axis to access the Ladakh sector, but it also offers multiple other advantages. These are as follows:

  • Kargil Sector:
    • In case of any threat to vehicular movement from Srinagar towards Leh, army will have a much shorter route available to reinforce the Kargil and adjoining sectors.
    • Earlier, the troop movement would’ve have happened from Manali to Leh and then towards Kargil. This is almost 700-kilometre-long journey.
    • Compared to this, the troop movement can now happen on Darcha – Shinku La/Shingo La – Padum – Kargil axis.
    • Manali to Darcha is 147 km while Darcha to Padum is 141 km. Also, NH-301 already connects Padum with Kargil (234 km). Total distance between Manali and Kargil will be reduced to ~522 km, which is about 2/3rd of the distance if Manali-Leh-Kargil alignment had been used.
    • This shortened distance would permit much faster troop and supplies induction.
  • Leh Sector:
    • Similarly, troops and supplies can now be directly moved from Manali towards Leh through the relatively shorter NPD road (Manali-Leh: 473 km while Manali-Darcha – Padum-Leh: 444 km)
  • All Weather Connectivity:
    • The biggest benefit of the NPD road could very well be in terms of providing all weather connectivity between Ladakh and rest of the country.
    • As has been explained before, there are five high altitude mountain passes on the Manal-Leh highway.
    • Of these, tunnel is being constructed to by-pass only the first pass, i.e. Rohtang La.
    • So, while Rohtang La will remain open throughout the year, unless we tackle the four other passes on the Manali-Leh highway, connectivity during winter months will remain an issue.
    • Compared to this, the NPD alignment has only one pass i.e. Shingo La/Shinku La pass. Rest of the road moves mainly along alignment of rivers and river valleys.
    • Therefore, if a tunnel under Shinku La/Shingo La pass becomes operational, then along with Rohtang tunnel, Manali-Darcha – Padum – Nimmo – Leh alignment can have all weather connectivity.
    • As per government documents, feasibility study for a tunnel under Shingo La/Shinku La pass is being undertaken.

Socio-Economic Impact

While the NPD road is being looked at from its strategic significance, we cannot miss the socio-economic impact of the new alignment which has already become operational.

People of Zanskar Valley will now have direct connectivity with Leh toward north and Kullu-Manali towards south-east.

If we consider the NPD road, the distance between Padum and Leh will be about ~200 km while the distance through Padum – Kargil – Leh road is ~450 km. The distance will be lessened by more than half the amount.

Further, even through the alternate alignment which has become now become operational, the road distance has been reduced by about 160 km. In mountains, where distance is generally measured in hours and not kilometres, these direct routes will drastically reduce the travel time.

Similarly, people from Zanskar, who’ve cultural and religious affinity with Lahaul & Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh, will be able to directly access these areas. The 900 km of one-way road journey from Padum to Manali or a trek of 7-8 days (Padum to Darcha) has been reduced to a days’ travel.

People can now avail better medical and education facilities and will have access to bigger commercial markets. Not to forget that with easier connectivity from Himachal Pradesh side, tourism will increase in the Zanskar valley, leading to employment opportunities and economic development.

Some more images of the road from 2020. These are from the Himachal Pradesh side leading to Shinku La pass.

Conclusion

A project first envisaged and planned in 2001-2002 has finally become a reality. And while there is considerable work yet to be done on the NPD road, the more difficult part has been completed and limited connectivity has been provided to the people. Over next few years, the road should see completion and provide the required strategic advantage to the army and the nation.


[A modified version of this article appeared online at India Today dated 23rd August 2020]

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