On October 3, 2020, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s highest altitude road tunnel – the Atal Tunnel – at Rohtang pass in Himachal Pradesh, which will provide all-weather connectivity from the hill town of Manali to the Lahaul-Spiti Valley. The tunnel, an engineering marvel, is an important piece of India’s border infrastructure in the Himalayas. It is a step closer to the goal of all-weather connectivity to Leh, capital of the Union Territory of Ladakh, and other forward areas, and is extremely significant for the country’s defence.
The 9.02-km-long tunnel is located at an altitude of 3,000 m in the eastern Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas, on the Leh-Manali highway. It provides connectivity till Darcha, north of Keylong, in the picturesque Lahaul region. Before the tunnel became operational, the area was isolated for almost six months since the Rohtang pass is covered with snow between November and May. Every year, authorities had to painstakingly clear the snow to locate the road and restart traffic. With all-weather connectivity, the tunnel also shortens the 472-km distance between Manali and Leh by 46 km, drastically reducing the time taken to cross the Rohtang pass from over two hours to 15 minutes. The project was executed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) of the Ministry of Defence. Apart from BRO personnel, the Atal Tunnel project team comprised specialists from around the world, including Austria, Croatia, Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines.
The tunnel is named after former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee since his administration had cleared the project in 2000. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had taken the decision to construct the tunnel in June, 2000, and the foundation stone for the access road to the south portal of the tunnel was laid in May, 2002. However, the project progressed slower than expected as the engineers encountered several roadblocks. The dual challenges of high altitude and the extreme climatic conditions, particularly in the colder months, were formidable. Heavy snowfall and blizzards during winter made the north portal of the tunnel inaccessible, which considerably disrupted the pace of the project. Engineers could only work on the excavation of tunnel from the south portal. Even more daunting was the unstable geological condition of the Himalayas and the associated seismic activity, which triggers landslides and avalanches. The approach to the tunnel had more than 46 avalanche sites. To overcome this, engineers used the New Austrian Tunnelling Method for construction – an advanced technology, appropriate for tunnelling in the Himalayas. After seven years of excavation, a breakthrough from both ends was achieved in October 2017. The construction includes an emergency escape tunnel built into the main tunnel as well as 18 avalanche-protection structures. The tunnel was scheduled to be completed by May 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown pushed back the completion till September.
A safer border:
The Atal Tunnel is a significant part of India’s broader push for border infrastructure in the last few years. It encompasses all connectivity options, including roads, railways and airfields. The demonstration effect of this project’s determination and engineering will be positively felt on other ambitious infrastructure plans for India’s defence and development. This strategically-important tunnel will ensure faster transportation of rations, weapons and other logistics all year round to the troops stationed in Ladakh. It will also help in faster deployment of personnel.
Helping the locals:
The new road offers locals a new chance for livelihood and health, by bringing them closer to bigger markets and medical facilities. The residents of the Lahaul and Spiti Valley remain cut off from the rest of the country in winters for nearly six months due to heavy snowfall. The tunnel will also boost tourism opportunities for the Lahaul valley and Ladakh. The Himachal Pradesh government already has plans for new tourist attractions such as vista-dome electric buses and cafes on either ends of the tunnel. There are plans to host a winter sports festival in the Lahaul-Spiti valley. The tunnel itself will be a tourist attraction, as could be guessed seeing the hordes of tourists who thronged the site to experience this engineering feat within days of its inauguration.
This article was originally published in India Perspectives.
Sameer Patil is Fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House.