With press of a button, Sonia launches Rohtang tunnel construction

Solang (Himachal Pradesh), June 28 (IANS) Pressing a remote control to get a giant excavator whirring, Congress president Sonia Gandhi Monday launched the building of a strategic 8.8 km long tunnel in this picturesque valley in Himachal Pradesh that will enable year-round connectivity between Manali and the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The digging machine was kept at a distance from her, near the south portal of the proposed tunnel in Dhundi, 25 km Manali. The valley is tucked in the snow-capped Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas.

When Gandhi pressed the button, the machine began the digging work, kickstarting the construction process that will be completed in 63 months. Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal were also present.

The tunnel at the Rohtang Pass will ensure all-weather road connectivity to Lahaul and Spiti valleys of the Himalayan state which remain cut off from the rest of the country during the harsh winter.

A multi-faith prayer meeting was organised before Gandhi inaugurated the excavation work of the prestigious project, expected to cost nearly Rs.1,500 crore ($325 million).

Priests from Hindu, Muslim, Christianity and Buddhist sects prayed for the accomplishment of what some Border Roads Organisation (BRO) officials term as a ‘grave geological challenge’.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson also lifted the curtain from a black granite tablet that read: ‘Foundation stone of the Rohtang Tunnel laid by Smt Sonia Gandhi Chairperson National Advisory Council on June 28, 2010.’

Gandhi, by initiating the construction work, gave wing to the idea her husband and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had conceived 26 years ago.

Once completed, the tunnel will meet the demands of nearly 34,000 people of Lahaul and Spiti valleys, which have remained underdeveloped due to lack of communication links.

The tunnel also paves the way for year-round access to the strategic Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir that shares its borders with India and Pakistan.

But the tunnel alone may not be enough to make the Manali-Keylong-Leh highway an all-weather road, as there are two major snowbound passes along the way – Baralacha La and Thaglang La.

Officials said another tunnel at Baralacha La is already being considered.

The Rohtang tunnel will have a semi-transverse ventilation system where large fans would circulate air in and out throughout the length of the tunnel.

It will have a horseshoe-shaped cross-section and will be 11.25 m wide, providing room for a two-way traffic in a single tube.

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