The strategic significance seems obvious today, but it wasn't always the case.
During his Budget speech last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made a critical announcement. He told the Parliament that the construction of the all-weather tunnel under the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh was complete.
Built at an altitude of approximately 13,050 feet in the eastern Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas on the Leh-Manali highway, this 8.8 km-long all-weather tunnel is one of India’s most critical defence infrastructure projects.
“The Rohtang tunnel has been completed to provide all-weather connectivity to the Ladakh region. The contract for the construction of Zojila Pass tunnel (located between Srinagar and Leh) of more than 14 km is progressing well. I now propose to take up construction of a tunnel under Sela Pass (in Arunachal Pradesh),” Jaitley said during his Budget address.
It was the first National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which announced the tunnel project way back in 2000. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) took charge of the project in May 2002, but construction only began in June 2010, under the UPA government. Some reports indicate that this horse-shoe shaped tunnel will be open to traffic by August 15, 2019. For the time being, the tunnel will be only open for emergency situations.
“This tunnel project was conceived way back in 1983 in view of the need to provide an all-weather route to Leh and Lahaul and the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. Rohtang pass, located 51 km away from Manali, is at an altitude of 3978.0 m (13044 ft) and has been posing a serious problem in maintaining the road communication for more than four months in a year. It faces heavy snowfall activity, high-velocity winds and sub-zero temperature,” according to the BRO website.
From Rs 1700 crore in 2010, the cost of this project has risen manifold—Rs 4000 crore—according to Hindustan Times.
The project was slated for completion in 2015, but significant geographical challenges and an inability to acquire the necessary bureaucratic clearances on time hampered its schedule. Among the major benefits of this project is the reduction in distance between Leh and Manali by 46 km. With a maximum speed limit of 80 km per hour, the travel time is expected to fall by 150 minutes.
One cannot stress enough how critical this tunnel is for the swift movement of defence personnel into Ladakh, providing a real alternative to the Srinagar-Leh route.
“I’ve personally experienced the importance of year-round road connectivity during the Kargil War. Both the Zojila pass of J&K and the Rohtang pass of Himachal remain blocked in winters. This tunnel will not only cut the distance but also provide all-weather connectivity. Three more tunnels are needed to make the Manali-Leh road an all-weather one, but the most crucial tunnel is almost done,” said Brigadier Khushal Thakur, a retired veteran of the Kargil War in 1999 to the Times of India, a few months ago.
For Ladakh, the completion of this tunnel marks a critical juncture in its access to mainland India, offering the region an alternative route besides the one coming in from Srinagar. For the time being, the Leh-Manali highway remains closed from six months from November to April, with the Rohtang Pass submerged in snow. The necessity of this route into Ladakh was made evident in 1947-48 when tribal forces backed by Pakistan made their way into the region.
Fortunately, the Indian armed forces received assistance from the locals and were able to thwart the raiders and secure the region. While the strategic significance of this route is now obvious to senior bureaucrats in New Delhi, it wasn’t always the case, as one elected representative found out. Although work on the Leh-Manali highway began in 1964, it would be years before governments at the Centre took cognisance of the problem.
Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, who was the Member of Parliament from Ladakh for a decade between 1967 and 1977, lobbied the Centre for years to merely construct a road between Leh and Manali. In his book “Kushok Bakula Rinpoche: The Architect of Modern Ladakh,” Sonam Wangchuk details this arduous journey.
On March 29, 1968, Rinpoche raised the matter in the Lok Sabha. In the following month on April 17, the then defence minister Sardar Swaran Singh responded to Rinpoche’s demand and said that the Government of India was pursuing the matter with the utmost seriousness.
“The work on the Leh-Manali road was started in 1964. To achieve maximum speed, its construction was taken up from both ends. About 65% of the formation cutting work has been completed. Our engineers expect that a fair-weather road should be available for use by vehicles by the end of the next year. Considering the limited construction season and formidable problems of logistics, the tempo of work has been satisfactory. A close watch is, however, being kept on the progress of work because, like you, we are conscious of the importance of this road both from defence and development angles,” read the letter.
Evidently the “tempo of work” was not satisfactory, as the change in government in 1977 brought with it an administration that was even more unresponsive to the needs of Ladakh. With progress on this critical route coming to a grinding halt in the intervening years, Rinpoche raised the matter once again in his capacity as Member of the National Commission for Minorities.
In a letter dated February 26, 1979, Rinpoche urged then Prime Minister Moraji Desai to intervene. “Commissioning of the road will considerably cut down expenses on transportation, and the road is not vulnerable at all and hence its importance from a security point of view,” he wrote.
Prime Minister Desai’s response to Rinpoche’s request reflected a callous lack of urgency, despite India suffering serious reverses in the 1962 war against China and constant infiltration from Pakistan.
“At one time the Army authorities had projected this need but now in view of the development in the situation and other facilities that are available they are not interested in this road,” Desai wrote. “The possibility of civilian traffic on this road is also very thin, particularly since there are many physical difficulties to be experienced on the Rohtang, Baralacha, Lechalang and Taklang-la, which are 12,000 to 17,500 feet high.”
The government also thought that the sum of Rs 14 crores as capital expenditure and the maintenance cost “would be very high”.
After Desai resigned in June 1979 following tensions in the alliance, Chaudhary Charan Singh took over as Prime Minister. Rinpoche once again took up the matter with him, but his response was even more dismissive. All that was on offer was a copy of Desai’s letter with the addition of a statement that there was no change in the Government of India’s position.
Fortunately for Rinpoche, other lawmakers in Parliament understood the importance of his vision for a proper route between Leh and Manali, and finally in 1989, the 473-km Manali-Leh road began serving as the second land approach to Ladakh. However, this road remains open only during the summer months and serves as a popular land route into Ladakh.
Conditions on the road require drastic improvements with segments of it unmetalled even today. Contrast this with what’s happening on the Chinese side of the border.
Unlike the Manali-Leh route, the Srinagar-Leh highway passes through areas which were at the receiving end of heavy artillery fire from the Pakistani forces during the 1999 Kargil war. Although our armed forces valiantly fought back and defeated the Pakistani forces, it was an embarrassment for the Vajpayee-led government in Delhi and the military establishment since they were caught unawares about Pakistani infiltration into Indian border posts, from where they bombarded Indian forces stationed below.
The Kargil war took a heavy toll on India both in terms of lives lost and financial costs. Little surprise that Prime Minister Vajpayee soon announced the government’s decision to build an all-weather tunnel into Ladakh via Manali.