Solang: A giant excavator sprang to life as Congress president Sonia Gandhi pressed a remote control to launch the building of a strategic 8.8 km long tunnel in this picturesque valley that will enable year-round connectivity between Manali and the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir.
The digging machine was kept at a distance from her, near the south portal of the proposed tunnel in Dhundi, 25 km from Manali. The valley is tucked in the snow-capped Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas.
The tunnel at the Rohtang Pass will ensure all-weather road connectivity to Lahaul and Spiti valleys of the Himalayan state which remain cut off from the rest of the country during the harsh winter. It also paves the way for year-round access to the strategic Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir that shares its borders with India and Pakistan.
The construction process will be completed in 63 months. A multi-faith prayer meeting was organised before Gandhi inaugurated the excavation work of the prestigious project, expected to cost nearly Rs.1,500 crore ($325 million).
Once completed, the tunnel will meet the demands of nearly 34,000 people of Lahaul and Spiti valleys, which have remained underdeveloped due to lack of communication links.
Priests from Hindu, Muslim, Christianity and Buddhist sects prayed for the accomplishment of what some Border Roads Organisation (BRO) officials term as a "grave geological challenge".
Defence Minister AK Antony and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal were also present.
Gandhi, by initiating the construction work, gave wing to the idea her husband and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had conceived 26 years ago.
At a public rally later, Gandhi called it a "historic moment" for the nation and an "emotional moment for me because a dream of Rajiv Gandhi was being actualised".
As Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had got a feasibility study of the tunnel done in 1987.
Sonia Gandhi said: "People will be able to meet their daily needs round the year. Medical treatment will be facilitated. Tourism will get a boost and youth will have more avenues of employment."
Gandhi said the tunnel "is important from other points of view" as well, referring to the easier and safer approach it will create to Ladakh as the other route through the Zoji La Pass on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway is close to the Line of Control (LoC), making it vulnerable to any offensive by Pakistan.
These two routes are vital for military supplies to border posts in Ladakh facing Aksai Chin in China and the Siachen glacier facing Pakistan.
Shanta Devi Singh, a 50-year-old woman who had come to the rally from Lahaul, said: "If we have all-round accessibility to Manali, we can have undisrupted essential commodity supply."
The construction of the tunnel, expected to be the world`s longest at over 13,000 feet altitude on the mountainous stretch, which has at least 44 major avalanche prone sites, is a huge task for the BRO, the Indian Army`s construction agency that is supervising the project.
Gandhi, who is also National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson, recognised the "challenge" but hoped the BRO would be sensitive to the fragile Himalayan eco-system.
"Do it in a way that environment is not disturbed," she said, addressing thousands of people who had gathered in this tiny valley.
BRO officials told reporters that it would indeed be a "geological challenge" in the region where past tragedies triggered by snowstorms and high velocity winds have claimed many lives.
The BRO boasts that the tunnel is a "landmark in the making".
BRO`s Lt. Col. Vinod Shukla said the tunnel would have three levels.
"At the top of will be the ventilation ducts" to control pollution and pull out noxious gases, Shukla said, adding it will incorporate large fans to circulate air in and out throughout its length.
The mid-portion, which would be 11.25 m wide, would give ample room for two-way traffic at a maximum speed of 80 kmph.
The bottom portion would be an explosion and fire proof emergency "egress" tunnel, he said. Passageways would connect the "egress" tunnel with the main tunnel to allow emergency evacuation. CCTV cameras would be installed at every 250 metres, he added.