Kargil, still waiting for its Godot

Javed Naqi, a native of Kargil, is an Assistant Professor in Kashmir. He can be mailed at javednaqi@gmail.com.

Javed Naqi

After years of demand for a tunnel across Zojila pass, the Indian Parliament, in March 2007, approved the construction of Zojila Tunnel.

For five years now, the demand has been a dream, albeit an unfulfilled one. After almost five years spent on the preparation of a feasibility report, it was only on May 2 this year that State Congress president Prof Saif ud din Soz claimed that the foundation stone for the construction of Zojila tunnel would be laid in August.

The story is not as simple as it appears. Behind it lies the struggle of a region that spends its winter in complete isolation from rest of the world – every year. Kargil, a small district spread over 14000 sq. km, is located in the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Inhabitants of this remotely located high altitude district are forced to be “imprisoned” in the snow-covered valley for almost six months every year as the only link – the Zojila Pass that connects the district to the outer world becomes inaccessible during winters due to extreme weather conditions – thereby beginning a period of isolation and great sufferings for its people

Carved out from the Ladakh District in 1979, this land was a forgotten tale surviving in the vast Himalayan Plateau unknown to the rest of the country, leave alone the world. The Kargil War shot this region into prominence in 1999. Though Kargil attracted much attention as a battlefield, the problems and issues of the indigenous population were overlooked; and till date they haven’t received due recognition.

Extremities, be it the geographical or the climatic conditions, dominate the lives of people in Kargil. Intense cold, dryness, high radiation, low humidity, low oxygen, desert landscape and limited water sources represent the climatic conditions of this arid region. Of the many detrimental effects these conditions have on the lives of these people – low fertility, high mortality, mental retardation and alteration in physiology are some of the leading ones.

Baltis, Purigpas, Dards and Brokpas are the ethnic groups, which courageously face the atrocities of Mother Nature.With Muslims leading in population, Buddhists form the second largest population with the majority of both the communities involved in cultivation, horticulture, animal husbandry, while a few are in government service, trade and commerce. This poorly developed district ranks at the bottom in infrastructural facilities and overall socio-economic development.

The seclusion during the winters worsens the share of misery of the local inhabitants. It results in great losses in terms of education, health, rural infrastructure development and, most importantly, sustainability. Tourism contributes greatly to the economy of Kargil’s neighbouring district Leh; however, here the tourism industry is dependent on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Despite having a huge potential for winter sports that attracts adrenaline-driven people from all over the world, Kargil suffers due to the six-month inaccessibility. Its greatest asset is at the same time its biggest drawback

During summers, the locals as well as the administration focus their efforts on stocking basic amenities for the winters. Thus, a great deal of energy and time goes into it and other major development issues in different sectors are ignored. The stocked stale food is the only option available to the inhabitants in this part of the world that has, over the years, adversely affected their lives.

It is pertinent to mention that before partition of the sub-continent, Kargil was an important trade centre in the Pan-Asian trade network. With the closure of the famed Silk Route and creation of India and Pakistan, the region has become totally isolated from the rest of the world. Mohammad Ashraf, former Director General, J&K Tourism, points out, “This border area was never really cut off even during most brutal winters”. He adds, “Kargil-Skardu was an all weather route of great importance, which further connects with Gilgit and thence to Central Asia”. It is only after the emergence of political borders that the area was totally blocked during winters. Thus, the people of Kargil are virtually imprisoned in a frozen prison.

Winter, coupled with the poor state of air connectivity, doesn’t leave hope for people to travel by air. In April, the government put forth a proposal to allow private airlines into Kargil without defining any time frame for the proposal. The only airport in Kargil is yet to be used for commercial flights and requires up gradation which has been pending for a long time. Due to the hilly terrain, the runway needs to be extended by 3,000 feet for normal commercial flights. The current length is merely 6,000 feet, inadequate for flight service in the hilly areas.

The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that the construction of a tunnel at Zojila can make the Zojila axis an all weather road to Kargil and the larger part of Ladakh. This is the only route, which can result in a dramatic shift in socio-economic development of the region. The dream tunnel will help the local youth realise their dream future. The tunnel will save crores of state money, now being spent for air maintenance and winter stocking of the region both by the defense and civil administration.

Like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the promised arrival of Godot, the people of Kargil have been waiting for the promised tunnel for years to end the winter siege. As of now, the wait seems like it will end in August. Let us keep our fingers crossed!