Leh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his daylong visit to the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir by kick-starting Asia’s longest tunnel, as a part of Rs250 billion (Dh13.48 billion) worth of projects to be unveiled or dedicated to the nation on Saturday, saying it showed New Delhi’s commitment to the all-round development of the state.
Addressing a large congregation gathered in Leh ground for the closing ceremony for birth centenary celebrations of the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, Modi said the Zojila tunnel would help in connecting the region with the rest of the country, a dream of the Buddhist spiritual guru.
The Zojila pass is situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh National highway and remains closed during winters due to heavy snowfall, cutting off Ladakh region from Kashmir.
The prime minister also announced the creation of a virtual museum which would showcase the history and traditions of the Ladakh region to the world.
Modi arrived here on Saturday morning on a daylong visit to the state, his first after the Centre announced the suspension of operations against terror groups during Ramzan.
Modi paid tributes to Kushok Bakula Rinpoche at the closing ceremony and unveiled his plaque. He ws accompanied by J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, Union Road and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, and Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office.
He began his speech in the local language, an action greeted with applause by a large crowd that had come to attend the function.
Paying rich tributes to Bakul Rimpoche, he said, “We remember the rich contribution of the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche. His was a life dedicated to serving others.”
Unveiling a plaque for the commencement of work on the tunnel, Modi said, “Zojila tunnel is not a mere tunnel but a modern day marvel.”
He said the carbon dioxide would be removed from the tunnel through a tower that will be seven times higher than the Qutub Minar.
Modi said it would provide connectivity to the region besides creating employment opportunities for local youths.
“Jammu and Kashmir is going to get development projects worth Rs25,000 crore. These projects will have a positive impact on the people of the state,” he said.
He said both the centre and the state were working towards the development of the state.
“Today projects worth Rs25,000 crore will either be dedicated to the nation or the foundation stone will be laid. This shows that New Delhi is completely dedicated to all-round development of state,” he said.
The prime minister said the region had great potential for agricultural growth, adding that it could play a key role in helping further holistic health care. He pointed to the aromatic industry and its products, which he said could be marketed the world over.
Taking a dig at the Congress, Modi said when he took over as the prime minister, thousands of villages were without electricity.
“My government took [the] electrification process off mission mode and took out these villages from the era of darkness,” he said.
He said nearly 40 million homes, which did not have electricity even after 70 years of independence, would be connected to the grid within a year and a half.
“19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche distinguished himself as an outstanding diplomat. During my Mongolia visit I witnessed the goodwill he has in that country,” he said.
A scholar of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, Bakula Rinpoche was head priest of the Spituk Gompa. He died in 2003.
Bakula Rinpoche served the state and nation when he was elected as Member of the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir in 1951. He became a minister in the then state government.
In 1989, he was appointed India’s ambassador to Mongolia, which made him the first and only Monk diplomat in the world.
This is Modi’s second visit to Leh, a Himalayan town sharing the border with Pakistan and China and located 450km north of the summer capital city of Srinagar. He was last here on August 12, 2014 when he inaugurated a hydroelectric power project.
The prime minister said the Zojila project will be a 14.15km-long two-lane bi-directional single-tube tunnel.
The tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity to Srinagar, Kargil and Leh and would lead to the all-round economic and socio-cultural integration of these regions, he said.
The tunnel would see the 3.5-hour drive through the mountainous Zojila cut down to 15 minutes.
Gadakri, in his address, said 90 per cent of the jobs created by the project would be provided to local youths.
He added that the tunnel would ensure round-the-clock supplies for the armed forces.
Welcoming the prime minister, Mufti thanked Modi for participating in the closing ceremony of Kushak Bakula.
The chief minister said the Zojila tunnel would be instrumental in increasing tourism traffic to Ladakh region.
Mufti also requested the sanctioning of an international-level indoor stadium in Leh and Kargil, commending local youth for their exploits in sporting disciplines such as ice skating and ice hockey.
About the Zojila tunnel, she recalled that Gadkari had set a time of seven years for the completion of the tunnel but the prime minister asked him to ensure that it be completed within five years.
“I’m confident that it will be completed during your tenure as prime minister,” she said.