By Lt Gen Dushyant Singh, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)
Also Published on 04 October 2020 in Free Press Indore Edition Miscellany Page
Picture of Inside the Tunnel
- PM Modi inaugurated the Atal Tunnel on the Manali – Leh highway on 03 October 2020. The commissioning of the tunnel has fulfilled not only the need of civil administration of Himachal and Ladakh but also of the defence forces. In the light of the ongoing crisis with China, the commissioning of the tunnel will serve as a force multiplier in the defence forces logistics preparedness to meet any adversarial challenges in the region. Union Territory of Ladakh has been in the news since last one year due to many reasons. First, its long standing demand to be bifurcated from the state of J&K was fulfilled on 05 August 2019. Second, due to the attempted multiple intrusion by the Chinese in the Eastern Ladakh region. Third due to the Galwan incident in which 20 of our brave soldiers were martyred including a Colonel, however, not before they inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese soldiers. Some intelligence reports suggesting at least 35 soldiers killed and many others injured. Fourth, the Indian self – defence action to occupy the dominating heights of Kailash range making the Chinese positions in Chusul sector vulnerable to Indian actions. While the Indian Army is fully prepared to fight an isolated battle in the winters due to the two major roads (Srinagar – Leh and Manali – Leh) being closed during the winter months, commissioning of the Atal Tunnel earlier known as the Rohtang tunnel has provided the much needed boost in our defence preparedness and infrastructure capability development. The BRO needs to be commended for this engineering marvel.
The Much Awaited Tunnel
- Finally Light at the end of the Tunnel. It took four decades for the project to fructify. Built at a cost of Rs. 3200 crores the first feasibility study of the Rohtang tunnel was carried out from 1983 to 85, by the Geological Survey of India, followed by another by RITES in 1990. However, it took PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take the important decision in 2002 to sanction the work of Rohtang Tunnel. The project once again floundered due to change of government at the Centre in 2003. Finally, the UPA government ordered commencement of the work in In July 2010. But it once again took a determined leadership in the form of PM Modi to push the project to fruition. Despite numerous technical problems including major leakage due to the 500 meter long Seri Nalla and COVID – 19 the tunnel has been finally completed and dedicated to the nation. The improved connectivity will act as a boon for the people of Lahul – Spiti (HP) and Ladakh. The Armed Forces will however be the largest beneficiaries of the Leh – Manali road.
- The Dimensions. The tunnel is the longest in the world at such altitudes and a commendable engineering feat. Measuring 9 km in length, it is a single tube two way road. It has tele connectivity every 150 meters, fire hydrant every 60 meters, emergency exit every 500 meters, turning area every 2.2 km to allow turns, parking and maintenance if a vehicle breaks down, air quality monitoring facility every 1 km, broadcasting system and automatic incident detection system every 250 meters. It also has an emergency escape tunnel. 750 engineers and 2000 workers including security and administrative personnel worked tirelessly in sub-zero temperatures braving not only the challenges of rugged mountainous terrain but also the COVID -19. As per BRO, neither a single casualty took place nor was a single case of Corona positive reported by the workers and the staff.
Is it over?
- Leh – Manali Highway Needs More Tunnels. While the BRO will make all endeavours to keep the road open during winters upto Leh but it is not an easy task. There are three more areas in the upper reaches at heights even more daunting than the Atal Tunnel that need to be crossed or an all-weather option created to make the highway truly all weather. These locations are firstly, Baralacha La, located at a height of 4,880 metres where a 13 km tunnel is needed. Secondly at Laching La at an altitude of 5,100 m where a tunnel of 14 km is required. Thirdly at Tanglang La, at an altitude of 5,320 metres, where a tunnel of 7.32-km is required. Given the altitude and extremely hostile weather conditions, working conditions and Engineering challenges the construction of these tunnels will be very difficult. But knowing the determination of the BRO, nothing should be impossible for the BRO Warriors.
- Zozila Tunnel. Ladakh is strategically important for the country especially in the light of our both adversaries being deployed in Ladakh. Therefore, Government is simultaneously pushing the case for Zozila tunnel to make the Srinagar – Zozila – Kargil – Leh connectivity all weather. Currently this road also remains closed during winters for a period of four months. PM Modi had laid the foundation stone of Zozila in May 2018. However, due to COVID 19 and other technical reasons the work is yet to start. This connectivity has to be also completed on priority to provide redundancy and robustness in defence logistics preparedness and infrastructure availability in Ladakh region. The proposed tunnel is 14.15 km long. It will reduce the 3.5-hour drive to a mere 15 minutes of travel.
- The urgency shown by the current Government, BRO, and the Surface Transport Minister Shri Nitin Gadkari augurs well for the strategic defence preparedness of the defence forces. Further, if India has to stand upto the challenges posed by China and Pakistan in Ladakh, all-weather surface connectivity is a non-negotiable issue and earlier we achieve it better it would be for the Country’s national security. In addition, all-weather connectivity will also boost the tourism of both Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh especially Kullu and Lahaul – Spiti in Hmiachal and Leh and Kargil in Ladakh.