Monday, March 5, 2012

The Rohtang Tunnel

Every day, we glance through umpteen number of news items in the news papers and then just forget about them. Some of these news items, are very significant from future point of view, yet we fail to realize their hidden importance. One reason for missing out important news is the prominence for civic issues like blocked gutters, traffic chaos and heaps of garbage on streets, given in daily papers. These issues grab all the reader attention, leaving aside news of real significance. In July 2010, I had read a news item that work has began on the 'Rohtang Tunnel'. This news item also had appeared in the 10 o' clock news on TV. Even then I had failed to catch the real significance behind this news. Last year I paid a visit to Leh and Ladakh. Only after my visit to Leh, when I came across another news item about Rohtang pass, I realized the real importance of this project.
When this project was inaugurated in 2010, the political leadership had tomtomed about how this project would improve the quality of life for people living in this remote border region of the country and how they can expect to get prompt medical assistance during emergencies. Yet, no Government would possibly spend 1500 Crores (1.5 Billion) of Rupees on building a tunnel in a remote region, which is snow clad for six months and where very sparse and this population dwells in any case, unless this tunnel is important for the country in some other way. To find out, why this project has been commissioned? And Why it is so important? It might be a good idea to learn about some history and Geography of this region first.

In 1947 when India achieved Independence, the British had driven many wedges between peoples of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps with an idea that a divided India would always remain weak, hungry and poor and they would be invited back to rule the country. Besides creation of Independent Pakistan, another wedge driven by the British was the return of sovereignty to small states within India. During British rule, these states and their Maharaja's were just puppets, dependent on British for almost all practical purposes, with British rulers controlling all state functions through the Maharaja's. With India's Independence, the powers that British had over these Maharaja's, should have been naturally handed over to the new Government. Instead of doing that, the British Government, unilaterally declared that the state Maharaja's would become sovereign monarchs once again. Many of the Maharaja's were enticed by this clever British move and started dreaming of having independent Kingdoms within Indian borders.

Fortunately for Independent India, a gem of a person was appointed as minister for home affairs. Vallabhbhai Patel, who was fondly called as Sardar by people of his native Gujarat, was a soft spoken yet incredibly tough personality. He made use of each and every trick of the trade to bring down these phony Maharaja's to ground realities and made the Maharaja's to sign on the dotted line on a document called Instruments of Accession and be satisfied with a monthly stipend for their nuisance value. Some Maharaja's like Nabab of Junagad, ran away to Pakistan with their personal wealth. Two large states, however refused to sign this Instrument of Accession, neither to Join India nor to Pakistan. Out of the two, Hyderabad state in south India, was subjected to military action ( actually called Police action) by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the problem was solved within days.
Unfortunately Kashmir was a tough nut to crack. Firstly this state had a huge landmass. It had International borders with China, Afghanistan and with newly created Pakistan. On Indian side, Kashmir had borders with Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The Maharaja of this state, Hari Singh never had effective control or administration over this huge region. Historically speaking, famous Maharaja of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, perhaps realizing the difficulties in administering this region, had awarded this state, to one of his generals, Gulab Singh, who incidentally was an ancestor of present ruler Hari Singh. In the northern reaches of Kashmir state, areas like Skardu, Hunza and Gilgit, the state administation was very weak and had to face troubles from local warlords.In fact, British were forced to keep a garrison in Gilgit known as Gilgit Scouts, to keep this area under control. British had managed to establish peace in this regions only after decades and decades of war. Besides the vast area of the state, the people of Kashmir state were also divided in three regions on religions lines. In Kashmir, Gilgit, Skardu and Hunza, Muslims had a majority, whereas in Jammu region, Hindu's were in majority and Ladakh region was Buddhist.

Pakistan found the silence maintained by maharaja Hari Singh over accession issue and his resistance to sign instrument of accession to join Pakistan, very irritating and raised fears, that Hari Singh may eventually decide to Join India. Pakistan decided to take matters in its own hands and under the disguise of nomadic tribes of North West, invaded Kashmir with plain clothed Pakistani soldiers. As per Pakistan's calculations it was almost impossible for the Kashmir state army to defend the state against Pakistani invaders and within a few weeks, Pakistani soldiers reached outskirts of state capital, Srinagar. At this point of time, Maharaja Hari Singh finally took a decision to join India and signed the Instrument of Accession. Within hours of the signing, Indian army landed in Srinagar airport and moved very fast against Pakistan intruders to drive away the Pakistani army from most areas of Kashmir Valley and beyond the mountain peaks line running near Kargil and Dras.
Due to pressure from chiefs of staff and senior officers of armed forces of Pakistan and India, who were still British, or due to some other reasons still unknown, the then Prime Minister of India decided to refer the dispute to United nations security council and and armistice was declared. The timing of this armistice was of advantage of Pakistan as it still retained about a third of the Kashmir valley and a large position of Northern areas in their hand. From strategic point of view of the Indian army, the line of control was not defensible properly. There is general thinking in India, that if Prime minister Nehru had referred the dispute to United nations few weeks later, the Kashmir dispute, which has become a permanent head ache for the Indian Government since 1947, might have been solved by the Indian Army, then and there itself.

The portion of Kashmir state, which has remained in hands of Indian Government, is geographically difficult for communications and militarily very hard to defend. The region consists of four mountain ranges running parallel to each other in Northwest-Southeast directions. On the south of Pir-Panjal range, the region of Jammu has mostly Hindu population and is similar to adjoining Punjab. Between Pir-Panjal and Nun-Kun ranges vale of Kashmir is located. Zanskar river basin runs between Nun-Kun and Zanskar mountains. Indus river basin is located between Zanskar and Ladakh ranges. Beyond Ladakh mountain range and to northwest of Shoyok river, rise the mighty Karakoram ranges, a line of separation between Indian subcontinent and central Asia.

Because of this peculiar geographical situation almost all traditional routes, except one, for entering Kashmir and Indus valley were from Pakistan borders. Only Jammu-Udhampur-Batot-Banihal pass-Kashmir route was in India's possession and available for transportation. This route runs, in the Akhanur region near Jammu, almost along the International border. Similarly Kashmir- Ladakh route after crossing Zozi La pass near Sonmarg, runs parallel to Line of control near Kargil-Dras sectors. In 1965 Pakistan invaded India by crossing Tawi river near Akhnur and attempted to cut off the Jammu-Srinagar road. Similarly Pakistan made an disastrous attempt to cut off Srinagar-Leh road by occupying high peaks near this road in Kargil in 1999.

Nubra river flows between South Karakoram ridge and Soltero ridge and joins the Shyok river mentioned above. This river originates from Siachin glacier, flowing down from Karakorams on Chinese borders. To control this area, is a must for India, as important entry points to Ladakh region from the North are located here. The Indian army posts here in Siachin can effectively watch Pakistani army movements in Skardu and Gilgit. In 1980 decade, number of battles were fought in this region. After 1999 defeat of Pakistan, no major military activity is seen here. Coming back to Srinagar-Ladakh route, this route remains closed during winters because of heavy snow falls. It becomes necessary to stock up provisions for Ladakh-Siachin regions during remaining 6-7 months and that too by a route running close to LOC. From the defense point of view, this was a dangerous situation. Realizing this, attempts were made to open another route to Ladakh since 1950. After 1965 war, efforts were intensified to open a route between Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Ladakh. This route was opened initially in 1965 itself for military transportation and later for everyone.
Manali-Leh route travelling over 485 KM, is militarily safe because it is far away from international borders. Because of this road, the life and death importance of Kargil road has been reduced to quite an extent. Even then there remains one more obstacle, which makes this road unusable during winter months. About 51 KM from Manali, this route passes through Rohtang pass, which is at an height of 13000 feet. Because of very heavy snow fall in this valley, the pass remains closed for at least 6 months a year. Because of the pass being closed, road communications to Lahaul-Spiti araes, which are just north of this pass and also Ladakh, gets totally blocked. Since both, Kargil and Ladakh route close in winter, Ladakh's connection with rest of the country is totally cut off for 6 months every year. Even in summer, the weather in Rohtang pass is unpredictable with cold biting winds and sub zero temperatures.

To overcome this natural obstacle, the Indian Government under Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi flagged green to a project of digging an all weather tunnel under Rohtang pass. In 1984, Geological Survey of India carried out the preliminary studies and in 2000 the work on a road leading to Rohtang pass, costing 180 Crores Rupees(Rs. 1.8 Billion) was started at the hands of then Prime minister Atal Bihari Bajpai . An Australian company , SMEC International, has been appointed as consultants for this work. After the report of this committee was received, in September of 2009, the work of building a tunnel under Rohtang pass was awarded to an Indian-Austrian company, Strabag-Afcons, and the work commenced on 28 June 2010.

Horse shoe shaped Rohtang tunnel is 8.8 KM long and would have a width of 11.25 meters. Instead of using the old Rohtang-Leh road, a new road passing thorugh Shin Kun pass in Zanskar valley and Padm town in Zanskar, is also being built at the cost of 286 Crores Rupees (Rs.2.86 Billions). All these works are expected to be completed by 2015.

According to Col. K.S. Oberoi of Border Roads Organization, India, while excavating this tunnel, about 1.6 Million Tons of crushed stone would have to be removed out. Most of the crushed stone removed would be reused in the concretization of the tunnel itself. This would reduce to a great extent any major effect on the environment. Huge fans would be installed to keep air circulating in the tunnel.
To open up all season communications to Leh and Karakoram region from India, Rohtang tunnel would be of greatest importance without any doubt. Indian defense forces would also be benefited to a large extent. However this tunnel opens new possibilities for India to establish all weather roads towards Xinjiang and central Asia from Ladakh onwards, through Karakoram pass, which was a part of old silk route any way, connecting India with Xinjiang. This trade possibility is perhaps the brightest aspect of future for this remote region.

5th March 2012

p.s. As reported in Border Roads Organization, Annual Chief Engineers Conference, 2014, out of total length of 8.8 Kms, 4.4 Kms length of tunnel has been completed by September 2014. The completion date has now been pushed forward to 2017.

9th July 2015

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