Light at Last

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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It has taken a while, but the Rohtang Tunnel project could alter everything, from defence to tourism—unless ecological degradation gets in the way.

Something is happening at long last with the most ambitious project ever of India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), and also the longest under planning. Originally envisaged in the 1980s, it is a tunnel in Himachal that will burrow through a mountain that’s snowladen all year round, to link Kullu Valley with the remote district of Lahaul & Spiti. It is being built by an Austrian firm, Strabag-Afcons, under BRO supervision. If all goes by plan, traffic in five years will shift to the new 8.8 km Rohtang Tunnel from the high-altitude Rohtang Pass familiar to Himalayan summer tourists in all its icy glory. 

Specifically, the tunnel will connect Solang Valley, 20 km upstream of Manali at Dhundi (elevation: over 3,000 m), to Sissu on the banks of the river Chandra in Lahaul Valley, and thus crunch the Manali-Leh drive by 46 km. This is not exactly a tourist venture, though.

For Indian defence forces, it will open an all-weather road route, an alternative to the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road, not far from the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir. Remember, the Kargil War fought 11 years ago was provoked by Pakistan’s attempt to take control of unoccupied ridges that overlook the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road in the Kargil, Drass and Batalik sectors. Indian forces pushed the intruders back, but not without losing some of their bravest soldiers. 

That said, the tunnel is great news for hill tourists who have not ventured beyond Manali all these years. To transit from the Lower to Greater Himalayas, they would simply have to drive through it. For the tribal district of Lahaul & Spiti, the tunnel opens access to other parts of Himachal Pradesh, and thus year-round supplies. Rohtang Pass, blizzard-prone as it is, stays snowed under from October to April. Even in June, you have to drive through a 20-foot ice gorge.

Not that the tunnel will be any more ordinary. Given the rarefied atmosphere at the height it will run, it will need a Semi-Transverse Ventilation System. “Large fans will be used to circulate air in and out throughout the tunnel length,” says Lieutenant Colonel Vinod Shukla, who leads a team of BRO engineers supervising the work, “With a horseshoe shaped cross-section, it will be 11.25 m wide at road level, making two-way traffic possible at top speeds of 80 kmph.” That’s some acceleration from the 10 kmph that vehicles manage through Rohtang Pass.

Engineers expect the Rs 1,500 crore civil construction part of the tunnel to be done by February 2015. Electrification and ventilation work could take a few more months. “We have a heavy penalty clause if the work exceeds deadline. So we expect to finish in time,” says a Strabag-Afcons official.

But the tunnel alone cannot keep the Manali-Leh road open all year round. Greater challenges lie ahead at Baralacha La and Tanglang La. Both these passes are above 4,880 m. “BRO is conducting feasibility studies for constructing a 292 km all-weather road, Nimu-Padam-Darcha, via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of J&K, estimated to cost an additional Rs 286 crore,” a Defence Ministry source reveals. “Our experience at the Rohtang Tunnel will contribute a lot towards our plans for the other two tunnels,” adds a BRO engineer involved with the project.

After the Kargil War, the Manali-Leh route became the main supply line for defence forces posted in J&K’s border areas, with Pakistan on one side and China on the other. But officials worry that haphazard development along National Highway 21, especially along the river Beas from Kullu’s Bhuntar airport up to Manali, is threatening the road’s survival. “The road beyond Manali is in our command, but the stretch till there is under civilian authorities,” says a BRO official. Geo-environmental studies have warned the authorities against the heavy construction, deforestation and mining being done all along the valley. Between the 1970s and the last decade, the area’s forest cover halved, while human settlement rose 225 per cent. Concluded a study reported in 2002 in The Geographical Review by Canadian geographer James Gardner: ‘Population growth and economic development, especially since 1990, have increased vulnerability to hazards.’ 

Such studies were prompted by a devastating flood in 1995, caused by the Beas bursting its banks, that led to parts of NH 21 being washed away. Losses were estimated in excess of Rs 100 crore. Now, say experts, the risks have multiplied. “A flood now can cause much greater loss to life and property,” says Professor AD Ahluwalia, emeritus geologist at the Planet Earth Centre, Chandigarh, “The sanctity of the river is being tampered with. Habitation has to be at a safe distance from the river. Just because you want to make a quick buck, you start building a hotel there. And that is what happened at the time of the flood.”

The Kullu-Manali region supports a tourist population far out of proportion with its own. The two towns have some 25,000 habitants, by the last Census, but 28,000 tourists turn up daily during the peak season that lasts seven months. 

“Manali chokes in summer,” says Kullu’s Deputy Commissioner 

BN Nanta. He says the concrete maze along the river worries him, but, alas,  it’s private property. “I have written to the state government to limit the number of vehicles entering the valley, so we can control activity here,” he adds. 

The mining ban, Nanta admits, continues to be flouted brazenly. Worse, even the BRO frequently picks up rocks and stones from the river bed, threatening the very approach to its grand project, the Rohtang Tunnel.