Indian Decade

Tunneling a ‘Pile of Bodies’

The Rohtang tunnel project is strategically important to India. So why is it taking so long?

India has often been compared to a sluggish, slumbering elephant. The comparison becomes all the more valid when contrasting the Indian elephant with the fire spewing, hyperactive Chinese dragon. While China has been working on its gigantic infrastructure projects at a scorching pace—and completing them on or before schedule—India has been painfully slow and straitjacketed by red tape.

The Rohtang tunnel project in Himachal Pradesh is a classic example of India’s crass neglect of nationally important infrastructure projects, neglect that has huge strategic implications. The project was conceived way back in 1983, but it wasn’t until last September that the Cabinet Committee on Security, India’s apex decision making body on strategic issues (and which is headed by the prime minister), cleared the Rohtang tunnel project.

So finally, work is set to begin. A global tender was issued and Strabag SE of Austria, the world’s fourth-largest construction company, will be executing the project in association with Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, an Indian company. Congress Party President and UPA Chairman Sonia Gandhi will be laying the foundation stone for digging work on the project on June 28. And as if the presence of Gandhi for the launch wasn’t enough to illustrate its importance, the ceremony is also reportedly set to be attended by Defense Minister AK Antony, two Chief Ministers—Prem Kumar Dhumal of Himachal Pradesh and Omar Abdullah of Jammu and Kashmir—and Steel Minister Virbhadra Singh.

I visited the Rohtang tunnel project site some 15 years ago when feasibility studies were being conducted by Water and Power Consultancy Services, a public sector company. I saw for myself how difficult and life-threatening a project it would potentially be to cut through mountains at that altitude (Rohtangis 13,044 feet above sea level). Indeed the dangers are underscored by the very origin of the word Rohtang, which in Persian means ‘piles of dead bodies’.

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The planned 8.8 kilometre-long tunnel is expected to be completed in 63 months. Once the tunnel is ready, it will provide an all-weather alternate route to Ladakh and Siachen (currently the only all-weather road route to Ladakh is the Jammu-Kargil road, which is within firing range of the Pakistani military). The Rohtang tunnel will throw open the remote Lahaul and Spiti tribal regions of Himachal Pradesh to the rest of the country all year round, provide a huge boost to tourism and generate massive revenue for the state government. It’s a shame it will have taken more than 30 years since the project was conceived before these benefits can be reaped.