Development or disaster? Why there’s no light at the end of the tunnel in Kashmir

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Besides being dug at strategic spots, tunnels in Jammu and Kashmir are equally coming at the cost of the environment. Mainly supposed to cut down travel time, the drilled pathway is leaving behind material which  degrades the environment, and clearly reflects the ‘tunnel vision’ behind the entire development process.

The famous Remote and Sensing Park at Preng, Kangan is the only and best example of how the excavation material from the upper Sindh was dumped in a planned way, later paving way to an environment-friendly park.

Better roads and advanced infrastructure are supposed to be the key to development but creating new paths while drilling between the high mountains have only destroyed the landscape and poses threat to the existing environmental conditions.

Cutting down of trees, drilling, excavation and embankment is an ineludible intervention that is leaving a significant impact on the environment.

Not only this, but drilling and excavation for tunnelling are leading to geo-morphologic alteration, changes in groundwater level, erosion, interference in the natural habitat of animals and birds.

Drilling and excavation lead to an increase in dust and noise concentration in the atmosphere and create extensive topographical changes to the place.

“Dumping of excavated material is more important as improper dumping can lead to a huge effect on the environment,” says Ravi Ji Pandita, working as divisional geologist at Power Development Corporation.

As somebody who has worked in the Bhagliyar Power Project as well as Chennani Nasri tunnel project, Pandita says tunneling operations can change the direction of groundwater flow besides the soil chemistry. Extinction of springs around tunnel areas is also being attributed to tunnelling.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid

These tunnels are generally made at high altitudes where a definite environment is needed by the species to sustain. The noise from fans for tunnel ventilation is one of the most significant and undesirable impacts on the environment there. “Although most of the tunnels in the Himalayan region are environment-friendly, proper dumping and tunnel dewatering is important,” Pandita says. “In my recent visit to Sonamarg, I felt that the material was being dumped along the river Sindh which I found improper.”

Kashmir’s beautiful terrain and diverse geographical patterns are a breathtaking view. These difficult terrains, many believe, are being crushed to create an easy way for human movement.

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The first such major project, built at an altitude of 1200 meters, on one of the most difficult Himalayan terrains was Chenani Nashri Tunnel, at a cost of about Rs. 3720 crores.

The tunnel has cut the travel time between Jammu and Srinagar by two hours, by reducing 41 kms of road length to a distance of 9kms and made the patch an all-weather passage for traffic. The tunnel was part of the 286-km-long four-laning of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway.

While reports claim the project is environment-friendly and has avoided large-scale deforestation, but the damage it has caused to the topography and natural terrain of the area is huge.

During the tunnel drilling, a huge amount of material was excavated which was either used for dumping certain sites along the four-lane highway, or just dumped along the gorge of Chenab river, or between the deep steeps of the highway.

As per Saadat Khaki, a well-known geologist from Kashmir, the tunnels are made only after a proper assessment is done regarding the type of core material a mountain is made of.

“Tunnelling is less harmful to the environment as it does not contribute to deforestation and change of terrain. Instead it goes through the mountains without harming nature,” he says.

The opening of the tunnel although has reduced travelling time but it has also destroyed the economy on the other side of the mountain.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid

Patnitop, the famous hill destination on way to Jammu used to be a centre of attraction for travellers and sightseers. With the opening of the tunnel, the tourism sector of the area is almost dead.

Likewise, the famous Kud, known for its sweets, has no more traffic jams and multicolour lights at night. Although the market got shifted to Sarmoli just a few miles away from the Jammu opening of the tunnel, the area has lost its charm.

The huge gullies between the mountains are now filled with the tunnel excavation material which will pave way to the much awaited four-lane Jammu-Srinagar highway.

The changing climatic conditions in the valley can be attributed to such developmental work. Terrains, rivers and natural mountain gullies have been changed for the convenience of humans. But altering the discourse of nature is slowly destroying the human habitat. Untimely rains and floods, sudden temperature rise, harsh winters, less snowfall and decreasing glaciers are undoubtedly the results of tampering with nature.

What’s more important, Saadat says, is how drilling and excavation is being carried on. The geologist opines that although tunnels have the least impact on nature, improper dumping can harm the environment.

Two such projects are underway in Sonamarg area of district Ganderbal and one of them is Z-Morh Tunnel.

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Z-Morh Tunnel is a road tunnel project that will help in ensuring all-weather connectivity between Srinagar and Kargil regions. The starting point for the 6.5 km long tunnel is Gagangir—once a lush green area, now an arid desert patch.

The next tunnel that will serve as all-weather connectivity for the Ladakh region is Zoji-La tunnel which is 22km from Z-Mohar tunnel.

Zojila pass which is at an altitude of 11578 feet remains closed for seven months due to harsh climatic conditions. The construction of this tunnel will ensure year-long road connectivity for the region.

The drilling and excavation for the project has already changed the terrain. The Sindh bed has been filled with excavation material at various places, thus hampering its natural course of water.

During 2014 floods, notably, Ganderbal district had witnessed the least damage. And the possible reason behind it was Sindh Nallah’s least encroached area and proper dredged bed. But since then, the clock has started ticking the other way.

The larger open spaces along the river bed from Gangangir to Sonamarg have been filled up by the excavated material now. But one can only imagine the wild course of the water body, if, let’s say, the weather turns bad anytime sooner.

These projects might be coming up with the tag of development to make daily life easier, but they’re slowly causing harm to the environment. And what’s happening to Sindh at the moment is the fitting case of how development is coming at the cost of environment in Kashmir.


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