Rohtang, as the word sounds, inspires awe and a sense of invincibility. Perhaps for that reason, the high Himalayan mountain pass gets its name Rohtang, meaning, in Persian, ‘piles of dead bodies’. Located in the Pir Panjal range 51 kmsfrom Manali hill town at an altitude of 3,978 meters (13,044 feet), the RohtangPass remains snowbound in winters for over six months, cutting off the tribalLahaul-Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh and also the strategically vital Ladakhregion of Jammu and Kashmir.
All that is about to change as the work on the Rohtang Tunnel, a dream project of the Ministry of Defence, begins on the 28th of this month, which would enable an all-weather road link across the snow-capped Rohtang Pass. Digging the Rohtang Tunnel is the most challenging assignment the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an Inter-Services Organisation (ISO) under the Ministry of Defence, has undertaken in its glorious history of 50 years.
A LANDMARK IN THE MAKING
At 8.8 kms, the Rohtang Tunnel would be dwarfed by the 57 km long Gotthard Base Railway Tunnel nearing completion in the Alps mountains ofSwitzerland. Rohtang Tunnel, to be built at altitudes ranging between 3,053 mtrsand 3,080 mtrs, will also not be the highest tunnel, when compared to theFenghuoshan Railway Tunnel, part of Qinghai-Tibet Railway Line in China, completed in 2002, that touches 4,905 m (16,093 ft), at its maximum altitude. So what makes the Rohtang Tunnel unique as an engineering marvel? Answer is, its main characteristic would be a combination of both length and altitude. The Rohtang Tunnel, when completed in 2015, would be the world’s longest tunnel at such altitudes, in fact, much longer than the longest tunnels anywhere around the world at altitudes over 2,500 m. For example, the nearest in comparison to the Rohtang Tunnel (Length 8.802 kms, alt.3,080 m) would be the Anzob Road Tunnel in Tajikistan (L-5 kms, alt.3,372 m), Khojak Rail Tunnel, built by the British way back in 1891, near Quetta in Pakistan (L-3.9 kms, alt.3,912 m) and the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel in the US (L-2.731 kms, alt.3,401 m) or in terms of altitude theFenghuoshan Railway Tunnel (L-1.338 kms, alt.4,905 m) and the La Galera Railway Tunnel in Peru (L-1.177 kms, alt.4,781 m).
RAIL/ROAD TUNNELS IN INDIA
The Rohtang Tunnel will again not have the distinction of being the longest rail/road tunnel in India, – that honour would soon go to the 10.96 km long PirPanjal Railway Tunnel at Banihal in J&K, part of the Jammu-Srinagar railway line, due to be completed next year. However, the Banihal Tunnel is located at much lower altitudes, – touching 2,200 m at its peak, with an average altitude of 1,750 m. As of now the longest tunnel in the country is the 6.5 km long Karbude Tunnel inRatnagiri district of Maharashtra, part of the Konkan Railway network, but being located on the Western Ghats, this tunnel is located at almost negligible altitudes of less than 50 feet. The longest road tunnel in India is the 2.8 km long JawaharTunnel, again at Banihal, with an altitude of 2,209 m, completed in 1956, and has twin tube tunnels running side by side, also making it unique.
A BRAINCHILD OF RAJIV GANDHI
The Rohtang Tunnel was first conceived in 1983 to develop the Manali-Sarchu-Leh road to an all-weather alternate route for strategic considerations, and a preliminary study was conducted in 1984 in consultation with the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and the Manali-based Snow and Avalanche Studies Establishment (SASE). A brainchild of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the detailed feasibility study for the ambitious Rohtang Tunnel was approved at a meeting of the Border Roads Development Board (BRDB) on January 14, 1987, presided over by none other than Rajiv Gandhi himself. It was planned to first construct an Access Road leading to the actual tunnel site. The length of this access road from the tunnel’s South Portal towards Manali is 14.84 kms and 0.94 km at the mouth of tunnel exit, North Portal, joining Manali-Sarchu road at KM 78.7, over Chandra river. The former Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee laid the foundation stone on May 26, 2002 for this approach road, costing Rs.180 crores. The access road to the South Portal tunnel site, on which 18 snow avalanche protection structures are being erected, was completed in the year 2005.
TRANSLATING THE DREAM PROJECT TO REALITY
The Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the Rohtang Tunnel project in September 2009 at a cost of Rs.1,495 crores. M/s STRABAG-AFCONS, a joint venture between India’s Afcons Infrastructure Ltd and Strabag SE of Austria, world’s fourth largest construction company, was awarded the construction contract through a global tender. Presently the preparatory work and induction of resources is under progress. The actual tunneling work begins this month and it is expected to be completed in 63 months, by the year 2015. Ms/ SMEC International Pvt Ltd, an international firm, has been engaged as the consultants by the BRO for the Rohtang Project till its completion.
The tunnel’s design would be novel in many ways. Due to its long distance and the rarefied atmosphere at the heights it is located, the tunnel would incorporate Semi-Transverse Ventilation System, where large fans would separately circulate air in and out throughout the tunnel length. The tunnel, with a horseshow shaped cross-section, will be 11.25 m wide at road level, providing ample room for two way traffic and designed to cater to a maximum vehicular speed of 80 km/hr. But the Rohtang Tunnel alone might not be enough to make the Manali-Keylong-Leh highway an all-weather road, as there are another two major snowbound passes along the way, - Baralacha La and Thaglang La. To overcome this the project envisages constructing a 292 kms long all-weather road, Nimu-Padam-Darcha, via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of J&K, estimated to cost an additional Rs 286 crores.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
When the foundation stone for the digging work of the Rohtang Tunnel is laid by Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, on the 28thof this month, it will mark another step towards fulfilling the aspirations of the people of the remotest regions of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The presence of the Minister of Defence Shri AK Antony and Minister of State for Defence Shri MM Pallam Raju, Chief Ministers Shri Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shri Omar Abdullah and Minister for Steel Shri Virbhadra Singh for the ‘Bhoomi Pujan’ ceremony only underlines the significance of the vital strategic and developmental infrastructure project. Once completed the Rohtang Tunnel will provide unhindered road access to the remote regions of Lahaul-Spiti and Ladakh throughout the year, besides reducing the road distance by approximately 48 km and saving travel time of about four hours. It will open up new vistas of trade and tourism and generate jobs for the benefit of the local population.
To undertake the herculean task, the BRO has constituted a separate ‘Project Rohtang’, the 18th such BRO project spread countrywide. The BRO, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee on May 7th this year, is a premier organisation for infrastructure creation and consolidation under the Ministry of Defence. The BROhas constructed more than 48,300 kms of roads, 400 major bridges of 36 kmslength and 19 airfields, most of its work spread across difficult terrain and inhospitable climates. At present BRO is working on 699 roads running up to 28,000kms, which includes new construction, as well as double-laning. Men of the BROalso carry out snow clearance operations on 95 roads, with a road length of 3,000kms.
BORDER ROADS ORGANISATION - ROAD BUILDERS TO THE NATION
Guided by their motto ‘Shramena Sarvam Sadhyam’, which means, ‘With hard work everything can be achieved’, the tireless zeal and valour of the General Reserve Engineering force (GREF) personnel, the backbone of the BRO, most often goes unsung. More than 60 percent of its personnel are deployed in high altitude, extremely difficult and insurgency prone areas. The force has lost 1,161 men since the year 2000 to the vagaries of nature and mishap, working in icy weather and precipices several thousand feet high above sharp valleys and gorges, and at times to attacks by militants. During the last decade another 1,850 BRO men have met with a natural death while in service, most of them that can be attributed to diseases arising out of hostile work conditions. A reflection of the glory of the BROheroes, whose greatest enemy is none other than the hostile Mother Nature, can be found in the 22 Kirti Chakras and 212 Shaurya Chakras including a Bar bestowed upon its gallant men. So the next time you hit a border road in the Himalayas, enjoying the beauty, serenity and splendour of the mountains do take a pause and ponder for a while how Mother Nature here can at times be very grueling and cruel. Etched in the several stone memorials you will come across at the sharp bend every mile or two, are tales of courage, hard work, determination and supreme sacrifice in memory of the men who paved the way for the sake of posterity.