Solang: The Rohtang tunnel, the construction work of which was kickstarted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi ON Monday, is a key step forward to make the Leh-Manali highway an all-weather passage to the strategic Ladakh region that shares its boundaries with China and Pakistan.
Though the tunnel was conceived first in 1984, the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil military conflict underlined the importance of having a road link to Ladakh alternative to the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway.
The heavy infiltration by Pakistan militants backed by the military in 1999 -- when they even occupied some key Indian posts in Kargil -- was said to be aimed at cutting the vital Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway and block supplies to forward area in Ladakh and the Siachen glaciers. The move was to be followed by an intended offensive by Pakistani forces.
The Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway is close to the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan, and remains vulnerable to cross-border shelling by Pakistan. The shelling, however, has stopped since a 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries.
The Rohtang Tunnel, at an altitude of 13,300 feet, is a step towards having the alternate link to Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway.
The tunnel to come up at the cost of Rs 1,500 crore (USD 325 million) will reduce the road distance on the Manali-Leh highway by approximately 48 km and will save travel time by about four hours. Some 3,000 light vehicles and 1,500 heavy vehicles can cross the tunnel daily at a speed of 80 kmph.
But the Rohtang Tunnel alone might not be enough to make the Manali-Leh highway an all-weather road, as there are two other major snowbound passes along the way - Baralacha La and Thaglang La.
To overcome this, the Rohtang project envisages constructing a 292-km-long all-weather road, Nimu-Padam-Darcha, via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of Ladakh. This road will constructed at an additional cost of Rs.286 crore, a defence spokesperson said.
The construction of the Rohtang tunnel has been entrusted with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), India`s premier road building agency that specialises in making roads at some of the highest locations of the world.