Rohtang Tunnel: Atal’s dream bears fruition; but three more are needed

6th September 2020

6th September 2020

When Atal Rohtang Tunnel is inaugurated, hopefully by this month-end, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it will be a major relief for the people of Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. It will actually be a case of only one down, three still to go, as more tunnels are needed at three more passes. To ensure all-weather connectivity on the Manali-Leh road.

So far, things seem to be proceeding according to plans but beyond Rohtang lie three other high passes where no tunnels exist. These three tunnels will be needed at Baralacha La (13.2 km tunnel at 4,880 metres), at Lachung La (14.78 km tunnel at 5,100 metres) and at Tanglang La (a 7.32 km tunnel at 5,320 metres). Collectively, approximately 35 km! Of course, nothing much has happened to take up the work on these tunnels so far.

When completed, likely to be any day now, Atal Rohtang Tunnel will be about 9.2 km. It will become the longest such tunnel anywhere in the world located at an altitude of over 10,000 feet (3,100 metres). It is located at an altitude of 10,171 feet and the Rohtang Pass is located higher at 13,051 feet (3,978 metres).

To supply rations, ammunition and movement of men, three passes ahead of Rohtang will have to be kept open this winter as the Chinese dig in. This task will be handled by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) which has built the Atal Tunnel at Rohtang. That is a herculean effort, hitherto not attempted as Rohtang pass used to close with the onset of winters. The other passes also remained shut and out of use during the winter months. That is unlikely this time though.

The completion and inauguration of the Rohtang Tunnel before month-end is nothing less than a godsend for the troops. In the absence of this tunnel, supply trucks had to climb up a steep gradient and crossing this area took two to three hours. It was a very challenging drive for the vehicles plying between Manali and Leh. With the tunnel being opened up, the distance on the two sides of Rohtang pass will be reduced by 46 km. For crossing this tunnel, barely 10 to 15 minutes will be needed.

The tunnel will help keep the Rohtang Pass open all 12 months of the year. Earlier, it was open barely for four months in a year and saw very heavy traffic. The area beyond the tunnel on the northern side is very sparsely populated, only 31,500 people in an area of 14,000 square kilometres!

Incidentally, the Rohtang Tunnel was named Atal Rohtang Tunnel on December 25, 2019, by Modi on the birthday of late Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was in the summer of 2000 that Atal had visited this area and announced that a tunnel will link north and south sides of Rohtang Pass. An old friend, Arun Gopal, a resident of Lahaul, had extended an invitation to Atal to visit Lahaul then. The possibility of a tunnel here was first talked of as early as 1960, six decades ago!

In 1999 winter months, Atal's buddy was cajoled by fellow villagers from that area to meet the PM and plead for a tunnel at Rohtang. He went to Delhi, along with two of his friends, Chhering Dorje and Abhay Kumar. Two decades later, those repeated visits to Delhi to meet Atal are coming to fruition.

The 117-km Manali-Keylong road journey presently takes five to six hours. However, it would be possible to complete this journey using the tunnel within an hour! Presently, traffic snarl-ups only add to the long hours needed to undertake this trip. All that is set to change irrevocably as vehicles will be able to travel at speed of up to 80 km per hour in the tunnel. Presently, their speed ranges from 10 to 25 km per hour on the Manali-Keylong stretch.

The construction of the tunnel had started in June 2010 and it has taken over a decade for the 750 engineers and 2,000 workers to complete it Sometimes, the progress of tunneling was five metres a day but on some other days, barely one metre of tunnel could be dug up in 24 hours. It has missed many deadlines already and mostly because of natural causes. Not this time though as final check-ups are on with senior officials and politicians taking regular updates of the progress.

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is with the publishers. 

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

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