Speeding Up

Progress on key tunnel projects

The central government has been focusing on expediting tunnel construction across the country, especially in the north-eastern region. It has taken up construction work on ongoing projects and is also reviving tunnel projects that have been languishing for years. Most recently, the government commissioned the 9 km Atal Tunnel in Himachal Pradesh.

Indian Infrastructure provides an update of the key ongoing and upcoming tunnel projects…

Zoji La tunnel

The Zojila tunnel project involves the construction of a 14.15 km tunnel at an altitude of about 3,000 metres under the Zojila pass on NH-1, connecting Srinagar and Leh through Drass and Kargil. In October 2020, the central government launched the first blasting for construction work on the project. The project was re-awarded this year to Megha Engineering & Infrastructure Limited, which had emerged as the lowest bidder, quoting Rs 45.09 billion for the project. The tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Leh (Ladakh plateau) on NH-1, and bring about the all-round economic and socio-cultural integration of Jammu & Kashmir. It is expected to be completed in six years.

In May 2018, the central government had laid the foundation stone for the project. However, in January 2019, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) terminated the contract awarded to the IL&FS Group after it abandoned the project citing financial troubles. Later, in February 2020, the government reviewed the project with the aim of reducing its cost and executing it on priority. The central government then suggested a modification to the tunnel design, proposing the construction of a two-lane bidirectional single-tube tunnel without a parallel escape passage, and reduction in construction shafts from three to two.

The construction cost of the Zojila tunnel was initially estimated at Rs 83.08 billion (Rs 106.43 billion including approaches up to the Z-Morh tunnel). After remodelling the project, the total capital cost of stands at Rs 68.08 billion, resulting in expected savings of Rs 38.35 billion on the entire project.

Z-Morh tunnel

Meanwhile, work on the 6.5 km Z-Morh tunnel, part of a strategic project for ensuring round-the-year connectivity between the Kashmir valley and the Ladakh region, is being undertaken expeditiously and it will be completed by June 2021. The Rs 23.79 billion Z-Morh tunnel project comprises a 6.5 km tunnel, a 6 km approach road, two major bridges and one minor bridge. In December 2019, NHIDCL re-awarded the project to APCO Amarnathji Tunnelway Private Limited, a subsidiary of APCO Infratech Private Limited.

The project was earlier allotted to the IL&FS Group. However, the contractor abandoned it in 2018 owing to financial challenges. The project is being implemented on a design-build-finance-operate-transfer basis with a concession period of 20 years.

Other major upcoming tunnel projects

Apart from these under-construction tunnel projects, many other key tunnel projects have been launched by the central government. Recently, bids were invited for the construction of an 8 km unidirectional tunnel and its 12.85 km approach road on the Sudhmahadev-Daranga section of NH-244 in Jammu & Kashmir. The project is being implemented in two packages on an engineering, procurement and construction basis, at an estimated construction cost of Rs 31.37 billion. The bid submission deadline for both packages is February 11, 2021. Bids were also invited for the construction of the 1.57 km Khellani tunnel and its 2.4 km approach road on NH-244. The bids are currently under evaluation. The project is expected to entail a construction cost of Rs 5.4 billion. Similarly, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) invited bids for the 2.8 km Sunghal tunnel project in the state, including construction of its approach roads on the Akhnoor-Poonch road in the state. Bids for the Rs 6.3 billion project are currently under evaluation.

Meanwhile, the Shinkun La, Tanglang La and Lachalung La tunnel projects in Ladakh, and the 10.2 km Vailoo tunnel in Jammu & Kashmir have been announced. The MoRTH has also recently given in-principle approval for the construction of a 2.74 km tunnel in Mussoorie, to be built at a cost of Rs 4.5 billion. However, the Rs 40 billion Mughal Road tunnel project in Jammu & Kashmir has been stuck at the DPR stage. The ambitious project has not seen any significant progress for a decade, despite repeated assurances from the government.

The way forward

Tunnel construction in the hilly regions faces several challenges such as difficult topography, land acquisition issues and cost escalation, leading to reluctance of contractors to execute projects in such regions. While the government has been working towards expediting project implementation, stronger efforts are needed to give an impetus to upcoming and languishing tunnel projects in the region.

Rolica Bhatnagar

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