Ask anyone traveling frequently on the Srinagar-Jammu highway if the just inaugurated Chenani-Nashri tunnel would make the travel a little less arduous and risky?
The most probable answer would be a resounding no. Think for a bit how the travelers would have reacted if the government had made it a priority to accelerate work on those stretches of the highway that are more prone to suffer damage because of bad weather.
During the last three months the highway remained out of bounds for 41 days as snow and mud slides closed the only road link Kashmir has with the rest of the world.
The highway has multiple vulnerable spots like Panthal and Chanderkote, where the road lies in shambles round the year. A simple drizzle forces the closure of the highway, leaving travelers high and dry on the highway.
In January alone, when the Kashmir valley received the season’s first snowfall, the highway remained closed for 20 days.
In February, the authorities closed the movement of traffic for 11 days. During March, the highway remained closed for nearly 12 days. Last month, deadly landsides occurred at both these places for days together, which forced the stranded passengers to trudge through mountains for miles.
Passengers were seen on the highway marching all the way from Chanderkote to Panthal, a good forty kilometers. “I have seen the worst phase of traveling last month.
Though the Chenani- Nashri tunnel was thrown open but it couldn’t help people who were stranded for more than a week on the highway. People in thousands started marching on way to Srinagar from Chanderkote ,” said Irfan Qureshi, a valley based journalist.
Experts say that the government should escalate the process of building more tunnels particularly at these spots to avoid the blockages during the winter season.
“The poor condition of road particularly at Panthal has become a nuisance for commuters and drivers. It would have been in the best interest of people if the authorities take some measures to improvise these spots,” an expert said.
The frequent landslides have claimed the lives of hundreds of people during the last several years. In 2015, as many as 2755 accidents occurred on National and State Highways which resulted in deaths of 450 persons.
The closure of this vital route has meant huge losses to the business community who say that traders from both the sides loose Rs 30, 000 crore on average daily during the closure of the highway.
“Each day goods worth Rs.30, 000 are being exported and imported to the Valley. So now you can imagine how much loss it accounts to the people on both sides,” said Shaqeel Qalander, a prominent economist and civil society activist.
Although the government announced a slew of measures earlier to make the highway all-weather road, no visible progress is seen on the vulnerable segments of the highway.
The 8.5Km long Banihal- Qazigund stretch on which construction started in 2011 is yet to be made operational. Further the delay in the expansion of the highway into four lanes has made it more vulnerable to the weather conditions.
“The construction of four-lane Srinagar-Jammu national highway would have been all-weather road with no blockade during the winter season, had the authorities completed the vital project on time,” officials from the traffic department said.
The upgrading of this route has missed multiple deadlines so far. To upgrade the Srinagar-Jammu highway, the NHAI awarded contract to Ramky Construction firm, in 2011, for expanding the 67-odd kilometer stretch of the highway into four lanes.
The NHAI at that time fixed December 2014 as deadline which the executive agency missed. Later December 2015 was fixed as a new deadline which the agency again missed, then the latest deadline was set for July 31, 2016 which the construction company also failed to comply with.
While the work on major portion of Srinagar-Jammu highway from Jammu side is complete, the expansion of the Srinagar-Banihal highway to four lanes is yet to be completed. The expansion of the Srinagar- Jammu Highway has been divided into six sub-projects, Jammu-Udhampur road (65 km), Chenani-Nashri tunnel (9.2 km), Ramban-Udhampur road (43 km), Banihal-Ramban road (36 km), Qazigund-Banihal road (15.25 km) and Srinagar-Banihal road (67.7 km).
"We have taken it very seriously to make Srinagar-Jammu national highway all weather road. The executing agencies have been blaming 2014 floods and 2016 unrest for delay in completion of the project. The executing agencies have been directed to complete the project at the earliest,” former Minister for Roads and Building Department Abdul Rehman Veeri had said.
After a five and a half year wait, the Chenani- Nashri tunnel was thrown open for traffic on April 2. The tunnel equipped with hi-tech technologies like automatic ventilation and SoS service was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week.
The tunnel was built by Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) at a total cost of Rs 3,720 crore and has been declared as a major engineering achievement as it would reduce travelling time by two hours in mountainous terrain of Srinagar- Jammu National highway. It would bypass Kud, Batote and Patnitop which is almost 30 kilometers distance.
The tunnel comprises two parallel tubes— the main traffic tunnel of diameter 13 m, and a separate safety or escape tunnel of diameter 6 m alongside.