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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The tunnel of hope

TODAY'S PAPER » NATIONAL » NEW DELHI May 11, 2012 The tunnel of hope JAVED NAQI SHARE · PRINT · T+ Cut off from the world for six long winter months, Kargil residents are eagerly waiting for the Zojila tunnel to bring in development Snowbound:Zojila would be more accessible post the tunnel's construction. Inhabitants of a remotely located high altitude district of our country are forced to be “imprisoned” in 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 suffering for the people of Kargil. Kargil, a small district spread over 14000 sq. km, in Jammu and Kashmir was carved out from the Ladakh district in 1979. Till the Kargil War, this land was a forgotten tale surviving in the vast Himalayan plateau unknown to the rest of the country, leave alone the world. 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 the due recognition. Extreme cold, dryness, high radiation, low humidity, low oxygen, desert landscape and limited water sources — these represent the climatic conditions of this serene place. These, of course, have a detrimental effect on the inhabitants. For example, low fertility, high mortality, mental retardation and alteration in physiology are some of the leading effects impacting the locals. Drass, a small town to the west of Kargil, is renowned as the second coldest inhabited place, with the temperature dipping down below -45 °C. The district is home to a population of a few lakhs and they carry out their day to day life under severe environmental stress. The ethnic groups living here are the Baltis, Purigpas, Dards and Brokpas. The Muslims are the majority whereas the Buddhists form the second largest community. The main occupation of this population is cultivation, horticulture, animal husbandry, while a few are in government service, trade and commerce. The district is poorly developed and ranks at the bottom in infrastructural facilities and overall socio-economic development. This adds to the hardship of the local populace, leaving their survival at the mercy of nature. The isolation during the winters worsens the share of misery of the local inhabitants. It means losses in 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, 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 the basic amenities for the winters — thus other crucial development issues continue to be ignored. It is pertinent to mention that before Partition, 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, Jammu and Kashmir 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 connects Gilgit and thence Central Asia”. It is only after the emergence of political borders that the area was totally blocked during winters.