The Chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC), Sonia Gandhi, laid the foundation stone for the strategic 8.8 kilometer-long Rohtang Tunnel, to be built at an altitude of over 3,000 meters in the Pir Panjal range, which will enable all-weather road access across the Rohtang Pass at a height of 3,978 mts.
Simultaneous drilling commenced on Monday at the South Portal, 15 kilometers from Manali, in Himachal Pradesh as well as at the North Portal, joining the Manali-Sarchu road over the Chandra river.
The tunnel will provide unhindered road access to the remote regions of Lahaul and Spiti, and Pangi Valley in Himachal Pradesh throughout the year, as well cutting the travel distance by almost 48 kilometers or four hours. It will also facilitate an alternate and assured access to the Ladakh region in the event of a closure of National Highway 1D, which connects Srinagar to Leh in Ladakh, due to bad weather or, as happened during the Kargil conflict, because of shelling from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
The horse-shoe shaped tunnel will be a two-way lane in a single tube, 11.25 meters wide and will incorporate a semi-transverse ventilation system, where large fans would separately circulate air in and out, through the tunnel length and to reduce vehicular fumes.
The tunnel is being constructed at an expenditure of US $ 3.2 billion under the aegis of the Border Roads Organization (BRO) by Strabag-Afcons (a joint venture between India’s Afcons Infrastructure Ltd and Strabag SE of Austria, the world’s fourth largest construction company) and is expected to be completed in 63 months, by February 2015.
The project also includes the construction of 292 kilometer-long all-weather road through Nimu-Padam-Darcha via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir, at an additional estimated cost of US $ 600 million. This will ensure the two other snow-bound passes, Baralacha La and Thaglang La, do not prevent the Manali-Keylong-Leh highway from becoming an all-weather road.
Other officials present at the commencement of drilling included Union Defense Minister, AK Antony, Union Steel Minister, Vir Bhadra Singh, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Minister of State for Defense, Dr MM Pallam Raju, Defense Secretary, Pradeep Kumar and Director General Border Roads Organization (BRO), Lt Gen MC Badhani.
Incidentally, scientists at Panjab University and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research had once proposed the installation of a neutrino detector inside the Rohtang Tunnel.