A mega tunnel under the ‘pile of dead bodies’

Rohtang Pass (Himachal Pradesh), June 27 (IANS) Its beauty notwithstanding, this 13,300 feet high mountainous pass also, because of its treacherous terrain, ominously means ‘pile of dead bodies’. For India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), that is building the nearly 9 km-long Rohtang tunnel, it will prove a ‘geological challenge’ to cut through the mighty Himalayas to create an all-weather passage in this avalanche-prone zone.

The 8.82-km long tunnel, whose construction is to be launched by Congress president Sonia Gandhi Monday, will eventually pave the way for round-the-year road accessibility to the strategic Ladakh region through this pass when completed by 2015.

To create an all weather link between Manali and the Lahaul-Spiti Valley on the mountainous stretch, which has at least 44 major avalanche prone sites, is indeed a Himalayan task for the BRO, the Indian Army’s construction agency that specialises in laying roads at some of the highest locations of the world.

Past tragedies triggered by snowstorms, high velocity winds and extremely cold weather conditions have claimed many lives along the pass, located on the watershed between the Chenab and Beas river basins, 50 km from Manali.

Rohtang, on the Manali Keylong highway, has natural beauty in abundance with snow covered mountains all around, and dotted by glistening pine trees. The Beas river emerges from underground and flows southward of the pass. The Chandra river emerges from the northern side and meanders to westward on its course towards the Chenab.

But this beauty can turn into beast, unpredictably.

It is a tourist hot spot, but the pass doesn’t enjoy a good reputation of being a safe zone. Perhaps, that is the reason it is called Rohtang, which in Persian means ‘pile of dead bodies’.

‘It is very dangerous because of the unpredictable snow storms and blizzards. Rohtang means pile of dead bodies. But people in huge numbers still visit Rohtang,’ said Jagdish Chand, a small eatery owner on the highway in his 60s.

Chand said the local folklore was full of legends about the accidental deaths on the pass, which has been an ancient trade route between people on either side of the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas.

The pass remains closed for vehicular traffic in harsh winters which means that the tribal-dominated Lahaul-Spiti Valley also remains cut off from the rest of the country.

But that will become a thing of the past after the Rohtang tunnel is completed by 2015, as per the official promise.

‘We are confident that the tunnel will be ready by 2015 or even before that,’ Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju told a visiting IANS correspondent near the tunnel site.

‘We are using sophisticated tunnelling technology. A lot of background work has gone into it. My confidence stems from the scientific research and the preparedness that has been done for this geological challenge,’ Raju said.

BRO officials and scientists of India’s premier Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) admit that the tunnel indeed remains a challenge till accomplished.

The BRO has set up 18 avalanche monitoring sites on either side of the Rohtang pass. At each of these sites, the DRDO’s Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) has built indigenously developed avalanche control structures.

SASE is a vital DRDO lab that predicts and even controls snow avalanches, thus facilitating safe movement of the armed forces in snowbound areas.

‘It is a geological challenge. Snow storms aside, the excavation for the tunnel is going to be tough because of the unpredictability about what lies beneath (the tunnel area),’ Lt. Col. Vinod Shukla of the BRO told IANS.

The mystery is about what kinds of rocks this huge mountain, through which the tunnel is being dug, carries in its womb.

‘It may be hard rock, it may be soft rock, it may even be hot springs inside the tunnel. We don’t know. The mystery will be unravelled after the excavation begins and carries on. There may be a new challenge everyday,’ he said.

Shukla said the tunnel will be approached from two sides for excavation during which 16 lakh tonnes of rocks and other material will be unearthed. Some of this will be mixed with the concrete for tunnel building, and rest will be dumped at identified low lying areas in the vicinity.

The nearly Rs.1,500 crore (over 30 million USD) tunnel, besides opening up development avenues to the Lahaul Spiti valley, has strategic importance as well.

Constructed with the help of Austrian firm Strabag and India’s Afcons, the tunnel is a first step towards making an alternate route to strategic Ladakh region an all-weather link with round-the-year accessibility.

Its strategic value was reiterated after the Kargil war during which the Pakistan Army had aimed at cutting off road access to the Ladakh and Siachen glacier.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi will lay the foundation stone of the tunnel, thus giving wings to the dream her husband and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had conceptualised 26 years ago.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at s.kashani@ians.in)

–Indo-Asian New Service


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