ZOJILA PASS (GANDERBAL/DRASS): At 11,500 feet, with anti-UV shades, balaclava and protective helmet on, Inayat Ullah Khan Balti sits atop a dozer (BEML BD 80) to push the mountain rocks off the road for the next widening of Zojila, the toughest pass in Ladakh. It will help one of the Indian Army units of 14 Corps’ convoy reach Kargil. Balti, whose speech and hearing are impaired, has been clearing the road for the Army for the last 24 years. In March this year, Balti survived a scare after a snow avalanche nearly jetted him to a three-feet fall but his experience to find roads, curves, ascents and descents in snow-blindness has made the 40-year-old, the Man Friday of his unit 32 Task Force. He is fondly named “Tullah”. A member of an ethnic tribe found between Kashmir’s Ganderbal and Ladakh’s Drass, Balti, is a casual paid labourer (CPL) for Border Roads Organisation (BRO). BRO is the agency responsible for building routes in high altitude, treacherous and difficult areas of Line of Control and international border for both civilian and Army troop movement. It runs three projects Project Beacon (before Drass), Project Vijayak (till Kargil) and Project Himank (till Siachen). For the first time since 1999, the Zojila Pass that usually remains closed between December and May due to heavy snowfall has now two roads, upper and lower alignment which merge at an altitude of 10,000 feet, about 40km from Drass where India and Pakistan were locked in a battle two decades ago. On June 28, this year, the two-way movement for heavy traffic was thrown open to public after Balti and around 200 such men built the stretch using Inter Locked Concrete Block (ILCB), each having strength of 50 metric tonne. On an average, the BRO lays 10,000 blocks every day since 2016. “Tullah is the guy who initially finds alignment of the road, he leads us in the snow clearance operations with the leading dozer, finds the alignment and judges the road. This is how we clear the road and connect Kargil-Ladakh region with the rest of the world,” says 32 TF Captain Shubham Sood, Project Beacon. Balti only takes instructions in signs. From starting the ignition in dozer, putting oil, waiting for gelatin blast, and clearing road. He has what BRO refers as “mates” to help carry tasks. His mates Abdul Rashid and Fayaz Bhat, both of whom worked as porters for the Indian Army in the 1999 war, follow his instructions. “There is a thrill in helping our own jawans and civilians. We all carry pride in our heart for Hindustan,” says Rashid.
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