Updated: November 25, 2019 10:45:51 pm
Sixty five-year-old Jhumki Devi is lined up at a checkpost along the snow-bound Chandra river, firmly holding on to a permission slip which will allow her to travel to Manali in a bus. She is making a visit to her doctor — a trip that would have been unthinkable this time of the year if it wasn’t for the partially opened Rohtang tunnel.
Most winters, heavy snowfall in the Rohtang Pass cuts off villages in Lahaul-Spiti from the rest of the country. That’s set to change with the tunnel, which cuts through the mighty Pir Panjal range, providing a winter link to the outside world not only to residents of Lahaul and Spiti but also to those living in Zanskar valley of Ladakh. At 8.8-km, it’s the world’s longest highway tunnel above 10,000 feet.
With work on the tunnel nearly complete, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently told Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur that the tunnel would be operational by May 2020 as against the official schedule of September 2020. The new deadline has given fresh impetus to the remaining work inside the tunnel — the paving of the concrete road, among other work.
That means that the tunnel, which had been opened for civilian traffic a week ago, will again be closed from November 25 onwards, with access only to the sick and those in need of emergency medical treatment.
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“We are considering stationing an ambulance some distance into the tunnel, where patients can be brought in on stretchers. This may only be required only in rare cases because the state government’s helicopter service is very active. However, in case there is inclement weather and patients need access, we will take them through. Just the fact that people of Lahaul and Spiti now know that the Manali end is now connected to them and available is a major psychological boost for them,” says KP Parshothanam, Chief Engineer of the project.
Inspecting the ongoing road paving works in the tunnel, Purshothaman adds, “There are a lot of electrical works which remain to be done.”
One of the most prestigious projects in the country, the tunnel is expected to overhaul the lives of people in Lahaul and Spiti.
“Ahead of every winter, residents of most of the villages in Lahaul and Spiti would lock their homes and move to Kullu as it was very difficult to get any medical aid when the area was under snow. If you were unwell, you could only fly out by helicopter, but then you are stuck if the weather is bad. Now, since the word has gone out that the tunnel is almost ready, people are already chalking out plans for hotels, warehouses and other construction activities. You cannot imagine what it means to their lives. It will transform how they live,” says Purshothaman.
The team working on the project – 3,000 contractual workers and 650 regular employees of the Border Roads Organisation, who work in shifts, round the clock – have encountered their share of problems. The Seri Nullah, which flows on top of the tunnel had almost threatened to derail the project and it took several years to devise methods to tackle the massive flow of water.
The rocks encountered by the tunneling team were a challenge due to their wide variety and structure. “While the south portal had schist, migmatites and phyllite, the north portal had incoherently folded gneiss and biotite schist which were brittle and ductile in nature,” said a BRO officer associated with the project.
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