Srinagar, April 7: Heavy machinery drill into the mountains at Chenani, about 200km from Srinagar, boring an average of 4.5m each day.
Now it’s just a dimly lit, dust-filled hole; but by May 2016 it will turn into a 9km road tunnel, the longest in India, between Chenani and Nashri. More crucially, along with another tunnel, 8.45km long, between Qazigund and Banihal, it will bring the Valley closer to Jammu.
The all-weather road won’t just shorten the Jammu-Srinagar drive from 286km to 239km, it will keep the Valley accessible even during peak snowfall. It will cut by a third the travel time, now about eight hours by car and up to 12 hours by truck or bus.
“It will be a relief to have an all-weather-road,” said the vice-president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Abdul Hamid Punjabi.
“Some 200 trucks now ply on the Srinagar-Jammu highway every day, carrying farm produce from the Valley. In winter, the road is shut down by snow. During the rains, too, it gets clogged, especially the stretches near Jammu.”
Driving is perilous on the existing highway, which criss-crosses the Pir Panjal range, negotiating a huge variation in altitudes. In Jammu, the highway is 357m (1,171ft) above the sea level while in Patnitop it reaches 2,060m (6,756ft).
About 250 cars were stuck for several days inside the highway’s Jawahar Tunnel last February because of snow.
“Truck drivers say they find it difficult to negotiate the road, especially if they are fully loaded, because of the steep gradient. We are making sure that the gradient of the new highway is smooth and the curves are gentler,” said Veerendra Singh, project director, National Highway Authority of India.
The existing highway is not tolled but the new road will have six toll plazas. “By current rates, a car would have to pay close to Rs 300 in total to cross the road,” Singh said.
Although construction began last June, only about five per cent of the road has been completed, partly because of labour problems.
Both tunnels are being built in the New Austrian Tunnel Method. The engineers drill holes, about 2-3 metres deep, into the mountain and put gelatin sticks in them.
“For a single explosion, we use about 200kg of explosives. The entire tunnel is emptied out before detonation — all the workers and machines are removed from the site,” said G.V. Rao, deputy manager with Leighton, the contractor for the Chenani-Nashri Tunnel.
After the blast, the mounds of soil are removed with cranes and the rock is studied for any geological movements.
“We observe the behaviour of the rock mass. We provide a flexible support and allow the rocks to come to their own equilibrium,” Rao said.
Concrete is then sprayed on the tunnel’s walls using a robotic hand mounted on a crane. A wire mesh is laid and concrete is sprayed again. It’s only a temporary cover: the tunnel walls are to be finally provided with cast-in-situ concrete lining.
One key difference between the tunnels is that Chenani-Nashri will accommodate two-way traffic inside a single tunnel, although an escape tunnel is being built parallel to it for emergencies.
At Qazigund-Banihal, twin tunnels are being built. Each will have just one carriageway. The twin tunnels are connected every 500m and, the contractor hopes, these connections will serve as an escape route if necessary.
Both project sites are now hobbled by workers’ protests, with Chenani-Nashri having witnessed 12 days of strike.
The main issue is the Kashmiri workers’ contention that not enough local labourers have been hired despite a promise that at least 90 per cent of the workforce would be local. Leighton says that of its 744 labourers, 694 (93 per cent) are from the state. Wages, too, are an issue.
The protests have been less vocal in Qazigund-Banihal, where the contractors complain that the local workers are not trained well enough.
“They have been unemployed for so long, it’s difficult to get them to work within a tight schedule,” said Malcom Rankin, project manager with SMEC India, the consultant for the tunnel.
But even outstation workers are unhappy. Shahbuddin, 38, from Gaya said: “We work 12 hours a day. There is no holiday on Sundays or during any festival. After we have worked 56 days at a stretch, we are allowed a 14-day break but even that doesn’t come by easily.”
The average attrition among the workers is 20 per cent, partly because of poaching by other firms in an area that is witnessing a sudden spurt in construction.