Rohtang Tunnel in the waiting

The Rohtang Tunnel project, laid by the then ruling UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, has missed several deadlines in the past. The tunnel is now expected to be opened in 2020, writes RAKESH ROCKY

The Rohtang Tunnel, a strategic project that will also provide all-weather road connectivity to Lahaul Spiti Valley — known as cold desert — is not likely to meet its deadline. According to the information gathered by the Tehelka, there is all possibility that it will be delayed by a year. Earlier, the deadline for the completion of this tunnel was fixed for 2019. The conceptual plan of Rohtang tunnel first figured in 1983 but work on the ground was only started in 2010 and it was stipulated to be completed by 2015 earlier.

The construction of the ambitious Rohtang Tunnel project is being carried out by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a wing of the Defence Ministry, in collaboration with Afcons, a joint venture with Strabag AG.

The first deadline fixed for the completion of the tunnel was 2015, however, it was delayed due to geological challenges it battled since 2010 when its construction began. The tunnel across the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas, that will measure 8.802 km once completed, will connect Manali to Lahaul and Spiti Valley throughout the year and will reduce the length of the Leh-Manali Highway by about 46 km.

The foundation stone of the project was laid on June 28, 2010, by the then ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Chairperson Sonia Gandhi in Solang Valley, however, due to difficult climatic reasons and tough geographical conditions, the tunnel project missed several deadlines. Once the tunnel is completed, this route has the capacity to ply 3,000 vehicles per day under any weather condition.

Local MLA and Transport Minister in the state government Govind Singh Thakur appreciated the work done by the BRO. He said that people are eagerly awaiting the opening of the tunnel and road. ‘’This will reduce many problems being faced by the people of the area and of Lahul Spiti, he added.

The initial estimated cost of the project was set at 1,495 crore. However, experts disclosed that it has already gone higher than the estimated cost and when it will be completed the total cost may touch `5,000 crore mark. The Rohtang Tunnel project is a very ambitious programme of Defence Ministry. The 474 km-long Manali-Keylong-Leh highway is being used by the Indian armed forces to reach forward areas in Ladakh bordering China and Pakistan. After the completion of the tunnel, this motorable road will be open  round the year which will help them (armed forces) in their movement.

It is pertinent to mention here that the Indian government felt the strategic importance of the Manali-Leh link when Pakistan tried to cut off the Srinagar-Leh road during the Kargil conflict, in a bid to restrict road access to Ladakh. The opening of all-weather road will help forces a lot because at present they move to the forward areas in Ladakh from Manali side only between June and November last or first week of December due to inclement weather conditions.

The tunnel at Rohtang pass is located at a height of around 10,000 feet above the sea level. On November 22, 2017, it was decided to allow patients to be carried through the under-construction tunnel only in the gravest of emergency when the helicopter service was not available. However, common civilians were not allowed to enter the tunnel before completion due to risks of falling rocks, lack of oxygen in the tunnel as ventilation system was yet to be installed. In March this year, it was said that the tunnel may be fully opened for general traffic in 2019 after detailed work of laying the concrete road, security points, fire safety, complete ventilation and telephone booths at regular intervals is completed. However, now there are all indications that the work on the tunnel is still going on and it could be completed by the beginning of 2020 only.

Chief Engineer of Rohtang Tunnel NM Chandarana while speaking to the Tehelka, said that the approach road to the North Portal of the tunnel from Palachan is 14.8 km has four snow galleries, one deflector wall and  eight snow bridge, while on the approach to South Portal of the tunnel there were five snow galleries and snow protection structures.

Considering vital infrastructure, Rohtang Tunnel would not only provide year around road connectivity to Lahaul with rest of the country, it will also open up additional access to Ladhak. Presently, the only road to Ladhak passes through Kashmir and is very close to the Line of Control with Pakistan, where it lies exposed to cross-border shelling, he added.

To make Leh- Manali an all-weather road, four tunnels would need to be constructed and Rohtang Tunnel is one of them. The contract for the other three tunnels was also allotted to BRO in 2016. According to the engineers working with the project unforeseen problems which had not been anticipated when the contract was awarded, geological surprises and problems like water ingress in 2012 were the reason for the delay in executing the project. “A lot of muck flow in Sansri Nallah patch required some skilful engineering that took more than three years to overcome the problem,’’ said an engineer.

The Army is hopeful of completing the construction of the tunnel at the earliest. Chief engineer, BRO, Brig Nilesh Chandrana, told to Tehelka that the construction work has entered its last leg and every effort is being made to complete the things at the earliest. ‘’All civil engineering works are likely to be over by December 2019, he added.

Recently, Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur in a meeting at Sisu near Rohtang reviewed the progress of work with the senior officers of the Border Road Organisation and Strabag AG Afcons JV Company executing this ambitious project of national importance.

Agriculture and Information Technology Minister Ram Lal Markanda, who represents Lahul constituency, also attended the meeting along with Manali MLA and cabinet minister Govind Thakur. CM said in the meeting that Rohtang Tunnel was bound to transform the economy of landlocked Lahaul Spiti district by providing all-weather connectivity to this beautiful valley. Jai Ram said that the foundation stone of this ambitious project was also laid by late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.