The construction of the Rohtang tunnel, a strategically important infrastructure project that will ensure all-weather connectivity to forward areas in Ladakh, bordering China and Pakistan, may miss its February 2015 deadline.
Official sources say it will also face a cost overrun of Rs 500 crore to Rs 600 crore. The Rs 1,495-crore ($290 million) Rohtang tunnel's foundation stone was laid by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi on June 28, 2010, in the picturesque Solang Valley near here.
"The project is delayed due to tough climatic conditions and geological surprises coming one after another," an official, who is associated with the project execution, told IANS.
He said the defence ministry project is currently facing high water seepage and loose strata towards Dhundi, 25 km from here, and is likely to be completed by 2017.
Official sources said so far, 4.1 km of the total 8.8km-long horseshoe-shaped tunnel, being built under the 3,978m Rohtang Pass in the Himalayas, have been dug up. Digging is the most challenging assignment in tunnel construction.
"Till date, Rs 830 crore have been spent. As per estimates, it will now cost more than Rs 2,000 crore," said the official, on the condition of anonymity.
National Commission for Scheduled Tribes vice chairperson Ravi Thakur, who inspected the construction work on March 7, told IANS the project execution has been going on at a slow pace. Thakur, who is also a legislator, said he has apprised union defence minister AK Antony of the abnormal delay in its execution.
The project is being built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an organisation under the defence ministry, in collaboration with Strabag-Afcons, a joint venture between India's Afcons Infrastructure Limited and Strabag SE of Austria.
"The reason for the delay cited by the officials concerned is inclement weather and heavy snowfall in winter. However, this kind of weather was prevalent in the area when the work was awarded and this would have been taken into account while the target date was fixed," Thakur said in a recent missive to Antony.
Work on the north portal that lies towards the Lahaul Valley has been stopped since December because of massive snowfall in the area, but work on the south portal towards Dhundi is on.
According to a BRO official, some areas along Rohtang tunnel's south portal are under 8 to 10ft snow and the minimum temperature is around minus 20° Celsius.
In October last year, the construction work was partially suspended after a portion of the tunnel rooftop collapsed on the south portal. There was no loss of life.
The Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the Rohtang tunnel project in September 2009. On completion, the tunnel will be a boon for the cold deserts of Lahaul Valley, where more than 20,000 people remain cut off from the rest of the country in winters owing to the closure of the Rohtang Pass.
The tunnel, with a horseshoe shaped cross-section, will be 11.25m wide at road level, providing ample room for two-way traffic, and is designed to cater to a maximum vehicular speed of 80 km per hour.
However, the Rohtang tunnel alone might not be enough to make the Manali-Keylong-Leh highway an all-weather road. There are two other major snowbound passes along the way, Baralacha La and Thaglang La.
To overcome this, the project envisages constructing a 292-km all-weather road, Nimu-Padam-Darcha, via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir, estimated to cost an additional Rs 286 crore.
BRO's deputy director general Brig VS Kattarya, in a communication to Thakur last month, said the construction of Nimu-Padam-Darcha via Shinkunla Pass has been on at various stretches. "So far, 120km road has been completed in stretches," he said.