Even as work on the strategic Rohtang tunnel progresses slowly, the defence ministry has decided to construct four more tunnels in order to effect all-weather connectivity with treacherous roads linking the Chinese frontiers in Leh and Ladakh.
The four proposed tunnels will cut through lofty mountain passes in the Himalayan and Zanskar mountain ranges to facilitate year-round movement of vehicles – both civilian and army – to border areas. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), India’s elite agency responsible for the construction and maintenance of borders roads, has already engaged Italian consultants to conduct feasibility studies for the tunnels. Once built, it will cut through the avalanche-prone Shinkula pass – which connects Lahaul valley in Himachal to Zanskar in Jammu and Kashmir .
Though the 16,703-foot-high pass has no glaciers, it is highly prone to avalanches during snowy winters. It was only last year that the BRO completed the 39.6-km stretch to connect Lahaul valley with Zanskar.
The stretch connecting Darcha with Shinkula pass will also drastically reduce travel time between Manali and Leh. Experts say that the road, besides being of strategic importance, will improve connectivity for residents of the 15-odd villages in Zanskar valley – who currently have to walk nearly six days to reach either Leh or Manali.
The road will also aid the construction of a tunnel being planned beneath Shinkula pass. “The BRO has hired experts from Italy-based Geodata to conduct a feasibility study,” a senior official told Hindustan Times. This tunnel is aimed at reducing the distance between Manali and Leh.
Besides this, the defence ministry has proposed the construction of a 11.25-km-long tunnel beneath the 16,040-feet Baralachala pass in Zanskar range. Using the 470-km national highway connecting Manali and Leh to cross Baralachala pass has been nothing short of a nightmare for both drivers and travellers. While it remains closed to traffic during the winter, summers see melting glaciers create potentially dangerous streams on one of the most treacherous roads in the country.
The tunnel is likely to be built through the 17,480-feet-high Taglangla pass, which is the second-highest motorable mountain pass in the world. The proposed tunnel will be the longest one in the Manali-Leh axis, stretching for approximately 14.78 km.
The last tunnel on the Manali-Leh road will be constructed below the 16,598-feet Lachungla pass, which is on Himachal-Jammu and Kashmir boundary. It will be located just 25 km from Sarchu. The tunnel, measuring 11.25-km, will be second-longest in the axis.
The strategic 8.9-km-long Rohtang tunnel is already running two years behind the schedule. The project, aimed at providing all-weather road connectivity to areas bordering China, has hit another geological roadblock – with engineers finding it difficult to dig through entire strata of withered rocks beneath the 13,050-feet-high pass.