“We have lived our lives in all sorts of hardships in this cold desert. But certainly, this time we are not that fearful of winters,” said Shanti, 58, while digging out potatoes from a field at Kutbihadi village in Lahaul valley of the tribal Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh.
Non-literate Shanti and her matriculate husband Ramesh used to shift to Manali during the winters ahead of the closure of the snowbound Rohtang Pass every year earlier and survived with whatever money they earned by cultivating seed potatoes in a small area in Lahaul in a season. Their children are studying in Kullu.
“Our village and a number of villages around Koksar face avalanche threat in winters that damages our houses. We can’t stay back in winter months even after the construction of Atal Tunnel. But we are relaxed and there is no panic as we can travel back home to look for our belongings as per need through this tunnel,” Ramesh, 54, said.
The cold desert of Lahaul Spiti has the toughest terrain under very harsh weather in Himachal Pradesh.
The two valleys ~ Lahaul and Spiti ~ are separated by over 14000 feet high Kunzum Pass.
Spiti is connected to the other side of Himachal through the tribal district of Kinnaur, while travel to Lahaul from Manali involved crossing over a 13050 feet high Rohtang Pass (which remained closed for five months due to heavy snow in winters).
The travel to Lahaul will now be much shorter (by 3-4 hours) and much easier throughout the year from this all weather tunnel.
Despite much progress over the last two decades in terms of road and phone connectivity, the Lahaul valley saw majority locals migrating to Manali and Kullu in winters to avoid the harsh life back home all these years. The others staying back to look after homes had to prepare in advance for winters, especially in terms of food stock.
A large number of people left the area to settle outside permanently that contributed to some drop in population growth in Lahaul Spiti from 2001-2011.
“This had to happen as the medical facilities in tribal Lahaul Spiti have been very poor. There are no specialists to handle emergencies. The facilities for higher education are nil here. We had to send our children outside for education to keep pace with times,” said Jagannath, 49, who runs a hotel in Keylong.
“The connectivity will make our life easier from now on. But for two-three months in winters, it snows heavily and is extremely cold as the temperature dips to 15-20 degree Celsius in many areas, so people, especially elders and women, may still have to stay out,” he added..
The tribals find that the all weather connectivity will ultimately change the course of development in Lahaul in terms of health, education and overall economy with its mainstreaming.
“The government employees also won’t evade postings in this area with round the year connectivity. The farmers will now have easy mobility to market cash crops like peas, potatoes and vegetables outside Lahaul. Many times, our harvest used to rot due to road block in uncertain weather,” said Krishan, 52, a farmer in Keylong.