It may take time, but the 9.02kilometre-long all-weather Atal tunnel at Rohtang connecting Manali with Lahaul is set to change the contours of overall development in the remote Lahaul Spiti district in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh.
With easy accessibility, it will not only help in ensuring ‘reverse migration’ of tribals, but will also facilitate in updating infrastructure and human resources in this tribal district.
Apart from lack of connectivity, the tribal valley of Lahaul lacked basic amenities.
It did not have higher education facilities, proper health services and employment opportunities. That is why there was migration from Lahaul, not only during harsh winters but perennially, of those local residents looking for greener pastures outside the district.
The routine government systems also did not function in Lahaul properly in the tough distant land. The employees and officers of all rungs considered it as a punishment posting as they were stuck for five months in the valley, with Rohtang Pass closed due to heavy snow. And most of them managed not to go there.
However, with the tunnel now operational, the government institutions may also witness the phenomenon of “willing staff’’.
The locals feel that the government, which is aiming that the tunnel will open up the economy, needs to work out a plan to develop Lahaul in an environmentally friendly way.
“Even if tourism is to be promoted, it has to be done with a perspective, lest the untouched land of Lahaul also goes Shimla or Manali way, resulting in overcrowding and environment issues,” said Jeevan Thakur, a retired officer in Keylong.
He said the tunnel apart, the decision of holding Assembly polls together in the hill state had made a major difference for the tribal areas of HP late last decade.
Many times in the past the polls to tribal constituencies of Lahaul Spiti, Kinnaur and Bharmour (Chamba district) used to be held after the government formation based on 65 out of 68 Assembly segments because of inclement weather during elections, so the tribals had lesser say in democratic process.
The tunnel will, however, help in mainstreaming of the distant area, the locals do feel that Lahaul Spiti has developed much over the last two decades.
“We can’t do anything when it is about harsh weather and heavy snow, with temperature dipping to minus 20- 30 degrees at some places in Lahaul Spiti. But we now have power, water, phone connectivity and required roads, which were earlier not there when we were small children,” said Sonam, 77, a local vendor in Keylong.
The old man recalled that everyone contributed to Lahaul Spiti’s development, but the former six-time Congress Chief Minister took much pain to interact with tribals during his tenures and had a better connect with them on personal level.
“Singh is one Chief Minister, who would come here, sit outside the rest house to meet people from morning to evening and would take action on their grievances,” he said.
The tribals said the tunnel is a long conceived project and a survey on this was done in early 80s also at the instance of then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Although the credit for get-going on the Atal tunnel goes to former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi (then party incharge in HP) and former Chief Minister, Prem Kumar Dhumal pressing for it early last decade. Present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) CM, Jai Ram Thakur too contributed much in the last leg of the tunnel construction by holding several rounds of meetings on the site, Shimla and Delhi for monitoring to expedite work.