Manali, a small town high up in the north of India in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It’s popular for being a tourist hotspot, though the principal income for the residents of this region comes from apples. It’s also well known for being the start point for the journey into Ladakh. Travelling the highway connecting Manali to Leh is one of the most sought after journeys in the world. Tourism for the general masses however, hasn’t reached the heights one could expect from a destination like Manali, because it has few claims to fame. One of those few tourist hotspots is the Rohtang pass. Situated at around 15,000 feet above sea level, this pass in the Pir Panjal mountain range is the most formidable pass on the Leh Manali highway. It is a vital link between the town of Manali and the Lahaul and Spiti valleys. Both the valleys have several villages and people residing in them are cut off from civilisation for nearly six months at a time, unless they make the significantly long journey around from the Kaza valley which in the winter months could be a four day journey. There is no access to food for these villagers, other than what is stored before winter, no medical facilities or any other support, nor are they able to sell their produce. Until Rohtang pass opens sometime in the month of May, the entire area is inaccessible. This also poses problems for the Indian army, who cannot deploy troops or supplies to some of their camps all year round further up in Ladakh. Tourists, however, visit the pass not to get a sense of how high the Himalayas are but to experience snow. The pass is open for just around four months every year. The rest of the year, snow accumulates almost fifteen feet high making access to the Lahaul and Spiti valley insurmountable. Even during the summer months the journey up to the pass isn’t an easy one. High altitudes, cold weather, avalanches, soil erosion, incessant traffic and ecological damage all pose myriad challenges. Hence a need for a vital link between the two valleys.
In the early ‘80s a plan was forged to create an all-weather axis that would connect Manali to the Lahaul and Spiti valleys providing year round connectivity between these two regions. The initial plan was to upgrade the existing infrastructure, but given the harshness of the Rohtang pass and the road leading to it that was constantly threatened by natural conditions, a tunnel was proposed.
In 2000, the then-Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee made an announcement that work would commence on building a tunnel. The Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) conducted the feasibility surveys necessary for the construction. Work began earnestly with surveyors trying to locate the ideal entry and exit points for a year-round connector. Work was slow given the natural conditions of the region. Heavy snow fall would impede progress for nearly six months each year making it hard to study the mountain and its characteristics.
Vajpayee laid down the foundation for the project that would come to be known as the Rohtang tunnel in 2002. The plan was to go through the mountain, under the Rohtang pass.India’s premier road construction engineers, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), was handed the principal task of building the tunnel. BRO partnered with Strabag-Afcons, a joint venture between India-based Afcons Infrastructure (a division of the Shapoorji Pallonji group) and Austria’s largest construction company, Strabag SE.
THE BORDER ROADS ORGANISATION
The BRO is single-handedly responsible for significant infrastructure works along India’s border areas. This includes the development and maintenance of roads in extremely remote regions along the borders of India, airfields, helipads, bridges and tunnels. The BRO has also conducted several operations of a similar nature in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Their task is enormous as a majority of the regions they build roads in are inhospitable. And yet, despite towering odds, the BRO has carved their way through the mountains, providing vital connectivity to far flung regions of the nation. BRO comprises of officers from the Border Roads Engineering Services (BRES) and an often heard name in the Himalayas, the General Reserve Engineers Force (GREF).
THE ROAD TO LAHUAL AND SPITI
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