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Hardlook: Lahaul-Spiti district waits for a tunnel to end isolation

Lahaul-Spiti knows all-weather road being built will bring more tourists its way but wants to avoid the pitfalls of Rohtang Pass.

Written by Ashwani Sharma | Kokhsar |
Updated: June 27, 2016 4:18:31 am
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CUT OFF by snow for eight months of the year, even from Kullu, the nearest district, the people of Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul-Spiti district have pinned their hopes on the Rohtang tunnel to end their isolation.

But as the 32,000 mainly Buddhist people of the district await connectivity, there are also concerns that the tourist rush expected when the tunnel opens must not turn this pristine area into another ecological disaster, like Rohtang.

Read | Hardlook: After 2015, Rohtang tunnel project likely to miss 2019 deadline too

Currently, Rohtang Pass is the only way to reach Keylong, the district headquarters of the two units — Lahaul and Spiti — and it is shut down for most of the year. In the summer months, the poor condition of the road discourages traffic. When the tunnel will open, there is expectation that tourists may bypass Rohtang altogether, what with all the NGT-imposed restrictions that have been operational since 2015, and head to the yet-unspoilt territory of Lahaul-Spiti.

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“For us, the tunnel is not just a structure or dream. It is the turn of a history of isolation, an economic resolution and also an era of change. The Lahaul population is anxious but conscious. What will happen if heavy inflow of tourists starts reaching Keylong? Are we prepared? And do we have the infrastructure or wherewithal to cope up with the rush?The fear is that we could face another Rohtang-like disaster” says Chander Mohan Parsheera, a professor of Tourism at HPU.

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There are early signs already. Tourists who do not get permits for Rohtang — limited by NGT to 1,200 vehicles in a day — obtain permissions for Keylong. Providing Lahaul-Spiti as their ostensible destination, 500 vehicles have crossed Rohtang Pass this year. Earlier, the number of tourists, barring local residents and those bound for Leh, was less than 100 during May-June. As a result, Kokhsar, a small town on Rohtang-Keylong road, has already witnessed a haphazard growth of dhabas and small shops.

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Lahaul-Spiti MLA Ravi Thakur is the most aggressive voice seeking an action plan to handle tourists rush in absence of infrastructure. “A masterplan is an immediate requirement, and I have often raised the issue in the Assembly and meeting of the planning board,” said Thakur.

Read | Hire a consultant, involve locals, devise masterplan for Lahaul-Spiti, says Ravi Thakur

He wants the Bhutan model of tourism replicated in Lahaul, restricting the number of tourists, creating parking sites, dedicated places or activities like paragliding, heli-skiing, skiing, airstrip, high-altitude trekking, snow viewing, adventure, mountain biking, etc. Lahaul is a unique valley with distinctive tribal culture, weather conditions, glaciers, lakes, passes, Chandra-Bagha river (the Chenab in J&K), high mountains and 1,200 to 1,300 year-old Buddhist gompas.

Read | The brunt of NGT ban: Rohtang Pass cleaner but livelihood issues remain

With less population and huge availability of land, chances of Lahaul witnessing a mushrooming growth of eateries along the National Highway are not ruled out. Those spoiling the landscape through such an activity could be locals, or even outsiders acquiring benami lands. Restrictions on the sale of land to non-tribals are bound to be breached. Thus, a planned growth is what is immediately needed.

An early effort to draw up an action plan was made by Lahaul-Spiti Deputy Commissioner Ritesh Chauhan in 2011, targeting 2015 as the year when Rohtang Tunnel would open to traffic.

In “Lahual Tourism Vision 2015” , Chauhan, now DC Kangra, listed strategies, targets and a vision on how tourism can be made a prime engine for economic development and prosperity of the valley in a sustainable manner with proper safeguards on valley’s natural and manmade heritage. After his transfer, the efforts were never carried forward.

HPU’s Chander Mohan Parseehra, too, has submitted some proposals to the government and written detailed approach papers making suggestions for a sustainable tourism.

Deputy Commissioner of Lahaul-Spiti Vivek Bhatia acknowledges the urgency of a masterplan before the Rohtang Tunnel is formally commissioned by its new 2019 deadline. He recently proposed to hire a consultant to undertake a detailed baseline survey of the valley and collect basic data on traffic mobility, carrying capacity and other infrastructural needs. Only when the data is available that future plans could be prepared.

Chief Secretary V C Pharka said the Deputy Commissioner has been asked to begin the process. “We will try to involve all stake holders, residents of Lahaul valley and some experts to prepare a plan. We have learnt our lessons from Rohtang. It’s a good wake-up call. Some have suggested that Bhutan model be adopted. We will study that. Besides, a few other innovations could also be tried. People of Lahaul are also alert,” he said.

The Rohtang experience is certainly proving to be a lesson. The panchayat at Sissu on Rohtang-Keylong road has imposed restrictions on locals against selling their lands. It does not allow its members to part with even a small patch of land for commercial structures, said DC, Lahaul-Spiti.

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