The annual exercise is larger than the Berlin airlift in terms of tonnage hauled till date. For the next 3-4 months, 1,000 tankers will each make 10-12 trips on an average to Kargil and Leh from the company’s Jammu, Jalandhar and Sangrur terminals to create stockpiles of petrol, diesel, jet fuel, kerosene and LPG. Hindustan Petroleum will move some 20,000 kl from its Bhatinda refinery.
The stockpile created in the short summer window lasting four months keeps life from freezing over in Ladakh and other high-altitude areas during the 8-month-long winter once walls of snow snap all road links to those areas.
“Our people work tirelessly in extreme weather conditions to ensure fuel supplies to two lakh civil and three lakh defence personnel in Ladakh. We maintain the lifeline for the last mile, be it Siachen or other forward posts throughout the year. We ensure that government initiatives such as Ujjwla LPG scheme face no constraints in reaching people anywhere, any time of the year,” IOC director (HR) Ranjan Kumar Mohapatra told TOI.
Company’s executive director (Punjab State Office) Sujoy Chaudhary, who is in charge of the operation, described it as “A mission of dexterity, teamwork, commitment and resolve to do the unthinkable. Pehle Indian, phir Oil (first Indian, then Oil)” to describe months of meticulous planning, co-ordination with various government arms and nimble logistics management goes into the exercise.
But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up a set of new challenges in addition to the late opening of Manali-Leh road and fickle weather that often results in landslides blocking the road for days.
Many drivers are expressing unwillingness to undertake the trip for fear of being quarantined when they return from Kargil or Leh, which have reported cases of corona infections. The company has extended Rs 1 lakh medical cover, Rs 5 lakh ex-gratia in case of fatality from corona infection in line of duty and discussing a way out with the administration.
The first batch of 11 tankers rolled from IOC’s Jammu depot on Friday for Kargil via Srinagar and the 11,500-ft-high still-frozen Zoji La pass. A convoy of 10 more tankers followed on Saturday. The company will use both the Srinagar-Leh road through the Kashmir Valley and Manali-Leh road via Himachal Pradesh to send the convoys.
The Ladakh administration has put in place a protocol envisaging testing camp at Meena Marg near Dras, police escort for the tanker convoys to check drivers from stopping at will or interacting with local population and separate parking and halting areas.
Both IOC and Hindustan Petroleum have to split their supply into normal and winter grade fuels, both confirming to BS-VI standard, putting additional demand on the supply management.
The success of the stocking depends on the tanker drivers who brave crumbling roads snaking up high mountains, snow and streams to deliver fuel to these remote regions and young executives manning the remote depots away from home and family.
“It is difficult to breathe in the thin air. Even with 50% load, tankers struggle to negotiate the passes as engines gasp for oxygen. There are breakdowns. Death lurks behind every hairpin bend. But still we do it as it is a service to the country,” Kuljit Singh, 54, plying the routes to Leh for the last 17 years, had told TOI recently as he was trying to decide whether to take the rip or not.
The tankers take three days to reach their destination and immediately turn back after unloading to pick up another consignment. “For these four months, life becomes a long road for us,” he said.