Ladakh needs a transit lifeline: Centre should accord national project status to Bilaspur-Manali-Leh track for strategic needs

Perched on the Himalayas and forming one of the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir, an expedition to Ladakh often figures in a biker's swagger or in the exciting tales of those who are fond of rendezvous with nature. Beyond that Ladakh is a sordid story of under-development lacking in 365-day active connectivity with the rest of the country. It's only now that the Indian Railways has thrown a shimmering hope as it indicated that its Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line along the India-China border will be treated as a national project. Once it becomes a national project the Centre will be lenient with its purse strings thus expediting the project. This move has raised expectations in Ladakh as well as in circles that appreciate the intricacies of the issue.

 Ladakh needs a transit lifeline: Centre should accord national project status to Bilaspur-Manali-Leh track for strategic needs

A truck makes its way through Ladakh. Reuters.

Ladakh is an extremely important Indian territory strategically. However, in terms of population, it is one of the least populated regions of Jammu and Kashmir. This is probably the reason that it has received lesser attention in the past. Historically, the region reached the Baltistan valleys (now mostly in Pakistan), the entire Indus valley, the remote Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti to the south, much of Ngari, including the Rudok and Guge region in the east, Aksai Chin in the northeast (which extends to the mountains of Kun Lun), and the Nubra valley in the north of the Khardong in the Ladakh range.

Contemporary Ladakh borders with Tibet to the east, Lahaul and Spiti regions in the south, Kashmir valley, Jammu and Baltiyul in the west and the southwest corner of Xinjiang on the Karakoram Pass in the far north. Aksai Chin is one of the disputed border areas between China and India. It is administered by China as part of Hotan but is also claimed by India as part of the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1962, India and China clashed in a brief war in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, but the two countries signed agreements in 1993 and 1996 to respect the royal line of control.

However, locals in Leh and Kargil understand that China is merely a breath’s distance away from Ladakh. Locals intuitively understand changing strategic environments especially the developing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  They appreciate that the proposed economic corridor between China and Pakistan passes through Gilgit-Baltistan. Not only does this have implications for a future China-Pakistan alliance in a future war but the development of infrastructure under this initiative far exceeds any present or future plan of the Government of India. The current state of road and air connectivity in Ladakh leaves much to be desired.

At present, the connectivity in Ladakh is dependent on the Gregorian calendar. Ladakh remains connected to the rest of the country only from March to October. From November onwards the region starts disappearing from national imagination. As temperatures plunge southwards more and more areas of the region lose connectivity. It is under such conditions that the Indian Army and the local population deal with the vagaries of life as a vital outpost for Indian strategic concerns.

The Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line addresses these core concerns. The railways expect the line will boost tourism as well. Availability of round the year connectivity with the rest of the country is crucial for Ladakh in terms of both strategic requirements and boosting tourism.

The proposed railway line has many important features. It will have the highest road point at 5,360 meters above sea level that is comparable only to the Qinghai-Tibet railway line in China. The line once completed will connect important locations between Leh and Bilaspur like Sundernagar, Mandi, Manali, Keylong, Koksar, Darcha, Upshi and Karu.

The project will include 74 tunnels,124 major bridges. Once finished, it will reduce the distance between Delhi and Leh from 40 to 20 hours.

Bringing the proposed railway track under the umbrella of national projects is a need of the hour and the government would do well to allow strategic importance have the priority and not ignore it because of a sparse population in Ladakh.

Updated Date: Oct 30, 2018 19:16:40 IST