Residents of tiny hamlets spread across Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul Valley, where temperature plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter, want to see the light at the end of the Rohtang tunnel.
Every year, when heavy snowfall high up the Rohtang Pass closes the road connectivity to the valley in Lahaul-Spiti district for at least five months, the lone state-run helicopter, which normally operates once in a week to transport the locals, is the only mode of transportation.
"We want timely completion of the Rohtang tunnel to end our miseries forever," octogenarian Khajana Ram, a resident of Keylong, told IANS over phone. He said an abnormal delay in completing work on the tunnel, a strategically important project beneath the Rohtang Pass that will ensure all-weather connectivity to the valley, was a matter of concern.
Added Sonam Dolkar in Sissu village: "No vegetable other than peas and potatoes that grow locally reach here once the road links snap in December. For five months, we have to relish only the stored vegetables and meat."
The Rs.1,495-crore tunnel’s foundation stone was laid by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi June 28, 2010, in the picturesque Solang Valley near here.
Official sources told IANS that the horse-shoe-shaped 8.8-km-long tunnel that missed its February 2015 deadline is likely to be completed by 2017. They said digging was over in half of the tunnel but the delay will face a cost overrun of Rs.500-600 crore.
Ravi Thakur, vice chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, told IANS that he had apprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the abnormal delay in its execution.
"I have requested the prime minister to direct the home ministry and the BRO to speed up the work of tunnelling and construction and maintenance and the roads and bridges connected to the Rohtang tunnel," said Thakur, the local legislator.
The project is being built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in collaboration with Strabag-Afcons, a joint venture between India’s Afcons Infrastructure Ltd and Strabag SE of Austria.
In a reply to his another letter in July 2014, then defence minister Arun Jaitley said that certain difficulties such as a significant change in rock class was encountered compared to what was initially assumed.
"Severe tunnelling conditions in some portions are being encountered," he said.
An official associated with the project told IANS that high water seepage and loose strata have severely hit the tunnel’s excavation.
But for 20,000 people of the cold deserts of Lahaul Valley, 122 km north of picturesque Manali, the tunnel is a ray of prosperity.
Hotelier Tashi Bodh said the construction of the tunnel would ensure round-the-year stream of tourists in Lahaul Valley, which will boost local prosperity.
"Otherwise, the tourists return only when the roads reopen in May," he added.
In a letter to Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh Jan 30, legislator Thakur sought regular chopper flights to Lahaul-Spiti for patients, employees and other emergencies.
Thakur told IANS that communications department secretary Rajesh Garg informed him last month that the BSNL had proposed to install six 2G BTSs (base transceiver stations) under its phase VII globe system of mobile communication in Lahaul-Spiti to strengthen mobile coverage.
The Lahaulis, as the locals are called, are mostly farmers and grow mainly peas and potatoes.
The Buddhist-dominated district in the Himalayan terrain at elevations ranging from 15,000 feet to 20,000 ft above sea level attracts globetrotters during summer.