A Kargil hero, Brigadier (retd) Khushal Thakur, who is currently Chairman-cum-Managing Director of the Himachal Pradesh Ex-Servicemen Corporation, on Tuesday said the Atal tunnel at Rohtang is significant not only for all-weather civilian movement, but also holds military and strategic importance, especially in view of the current conflict scenario on the border.
The tunnel through the tough terrain will connect the people of Lahaul valley in tribal Lahaul Spiti district to the rest of the state all through the year and is being inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 3 October. The people of Lahaul Spiti were otherwise cut off from the rest of the state due to snow on Rohtang Pass for five to six months.
The retired Brigadier from Mandi district had spearheaded the counter-attack at Tololing and Tiger Hills as Commanding Officer of 18 Grenadiers in Indian Army that dislodged the intruding Pakistani forces from formidable heights during Kargil war 21 years back.
He was later associated with implementation of Rohtang tunnel project (with Strabag AG- Afcon Joint Venture) from 2010-2013 after he retired from Indian Army.
“While on this project, I realised that on 20 May 1999, my unit (18 GRENADIERS) along with 2 RAJRIF was tasked to recapture Tololing which is one of the most dominating height along the National Highway, our main line of communication. During this operation half of my unit was employed to carry ammunition and food for the troops fighting on the icy peaks. This situation was even more challenging due to lack of high altitude clothing and shoes. We did overcome the enemy due to the grit and determination of the troops but at a heavy cost,” he shared with The Statesman. He said the operational actions and the logistic support go hand in hand to achieve victory economically in terms of blood, time and resources.
“Today, after 21 years of the Kargil conflict, things might have changed. But the war did highlight the imperative of having all weather lines of communication till the last man at the last post,” he said.
Thakur said in the present face off between India and China, the importance of this tunnel is unlike any other.
“This tunnel lies along one of the only two routes into Ladakh, the other being the Zojila Pass, which connects the Kashmir Valley to Drass. Thus it is essential to provide all weather connectivity with the forces in Ladakh at this critical juncture when the onset of winters is imminent,” he said.
The Kargil hero said this is the first big step towards building all weather capability along this Manali –Leh axis, which India had been feeling the absence of in the past.
“This tunnel has placed us in a better position in a conflict scenario if ever that happens. But this is only the beginning of a rocky road which lies ahead. Additional tunnels will have to be built along the Manali -Leh route at Baralacha Pass, Lachung La (16800 feet), Tangla and Nakee La to ensure all weather connectivity till the forward lines of Defence,” he said. Thakur said in addition, a third route Darcha- Padam- Nimu, which requires only building a 4.5 Km tunnel under Shingo La can be faster alternative till all the four tunnels on the Manali –Leh Highway are put into operation for achieving almost perennial connectivity.