FOR long, the country’s security was “compromised,” border infrastructure projects delayed and demands by security forces for modern gear and equipment ignored, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Saturday as he inaugurated the 9.2-km-long Atal tunnel at Rohtang.
Without naming any person or party, he said demands for modern fighter aircraft, ammunition, modern rifles, bulletproof jackets, extreme cold weather gear were shelved. “File pe file, file pe file. Kabhi file kholte thhe, kabhi file ke saath khelte the (file after file, file after file… sometimes they opened a file, sometimes they played around with the file).”
He said the crucial Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip in Ladakh lay closed for 40-50 years — abandoned in the mid-1960s, it was revived in 2008 by the IAF.
“What was the compulsion (majboori)? What was the pressure?…The fact is that the Air Force was able to restart it due to its own determination, not because of any political willpower,” he told a gathering in the presence of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, Army chief General MM Naravane and Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar at the tunnel’s southern portal at Dhundhi near Manali.
The tunnel’s opening, amid the ongoing India-China standoff along the Line of Actual Control, is going to help sustain troops mobilised in eastern Ladakh by providing an almost all-weather connectivity between Manali and Leh during the long, harsh winter months.
The tunnel is the newest addition to the Indian list of frontier infrastructure, the construction of which has riled China which, over the years, has built an extensive network of roads right up to the LAC and the McMahon Line, stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
The tunnel under the Pir Panjal range – it is the world’s longest highway tunnel above the altitude of 10,000 feet (3000 metres) — cuts the distance between Manali and Leh by 46 km, and driving time by four hours.
It’s a boon for residents of Lahaul and Spiti Valley who remain cut off from the rest of Himachal Pradesh for nearly six months due to snow.
Though the foundation stone of the tunnel was laid by then UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in July 2010, it was wracked by delays, missing several deadlines.
Calling it a “historic” day, Modi expressed his gratitude to those who had worked hard for the project — jawans, engineers and labourers. He said the tunnel would have taken another 20 years had work not been expedited after 2014.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee laid the foundation stone for the approach road to the tunnel in 2002 but the project was delayed after his tenure and only 1.3 km of the road was built until 2013-14, Modi said.
He said the speed of blasting of the tunnel was increased from 300 m per year to 1,400 m per year after 2013-14. Delays pushed up the cost from Rs 950 crore to around Rs 3,200 crore.
Flagging the tunnel as one of the key elements of the strategic infrastructure upgrade that will help secure “security and prosperity,” the Prime Minister said the government had restarted several old projects crucial for securing the borders.
The Kosi rail bridge was launched in September after hanging fire since 1934, and the Bogibeel Setu was commissioned in 2018.
The Prime Minister said there were dozens of such crucial border infrastructure projects lying neglected until his government came to power. He said in the last six years, the BRO has been building infrastructure with full force and a vast road network has been created near the border areas.
“Whether it’s Kargil, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh, dozens of projects have been completed and roads, bridges are being built quickly,” he said.
The PM said ordnance factories in the country were strong at one point of time, but were “left on their own”, and no efforts were made to strengthen the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
“The selfishness of those who were in power until day before yesterday stopped our military capabilities from growing and damaged them. These people had even prepared to pack our Tejas fighter planes in a box. Today, the situation is changing,” he said.
Modi said that reforms are being brought to promote indigenous production of weapons in tune with ‘Make in India’, and the long-awaited post of Chief of Defence staff has been created.
It has been made compulsory to buy several parts and equipment from domestic industries and their import has been banned, while India’s institutes are being offered incentives so that foreign investment and technology comes to India’s defence industry, he said.
“We have to enhance our infrastructure, our economic and strategic power at the same pace at which India’s global role is progressing. Self-confidence in AatmaNirbhar Bharat is today part of the common person’s mentality. Atal Tunnel is a symbol of such self-confidence,” he said.
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