Thursday, 29 September, 2022
HomeIndiaGovernanceWith Rohtang tunnel still not finished, this chopper remains Lahaul-Spiti’s winter lifeline

With Rohtang tunnel still not finished, this chopper remains Lahaul-Spiti’s winter lifeline

Over 1,000 people were stranded in Himachal’s remote district and the chopper couldn’t fly due to bad weather. But it’s finally back in action & rescuing them.

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Shimla: As Himachal Pradesh eagerly awaits the completion of the long-delayed tunnel under the Rohtang Pass, the tribal citizens of Keylong, Lahaul, Spiti, Pangi and Killar continue to live in despair every winter, with the only hope being a helicopter service run by the state government. But this service is also heavily dependent on weather conditions, since it has to fly over the 13,000 feet-high Rohtang Pass.

The winter of 2018-19 has been a difficult one, as over 1,000 people, including 44 patients in need of medical attention, have been stranded in district capital Keylong and other places because the chopper was unable to make it over Rohtang due to continuing bad weather. But finally, it came back into action in February, and has begun rescuing people, taking them to the medical facility or wherever else they need to go.

In the second week of February, more than a dozen medical emergency cases, mainly women, were evacuated from Pangi, Udaipur and Keylong. But the challenge remains serious — an attempt to fly the chopper from Bhuntar in Kullu on 19 February to airlift some seriously ill patients failed due to poor weather.

Also read: Debt-ridden IL&FS terminates contract to build India’s longest tunnel in J&K

Lay of the land

Among the remotest parts of India, the Lahaul-Spiti district in northern Himachal Pradesh — the fourth largest in the country — is mostly a cold desert like its northern neighbour, J&K’s Ladakh. Rohtang Pass is its lifeline, but it is closed for half the year. There is another difficult, circuitous road route into Spiti from Kinnaur to the south-east, but that is also practically useless to the local populace in a time of emergency in winter.

While the economically well-off families come down to more accessible locations such as Manali, Kullu, Mandi, Dharamsala and Shimla, the government helicopter service is the only hope for those less fortunate, including state government employees.

There is hardly any electricity, poor medical facilities and next-to-no specialists, and the nearest well-equipped hospital is in Kullu, more than 150 km from Keylong when the Rohtang Pass is open.

The proposal for helicopter flights was first submitted by a cabinet minister, Devi Singh Thakur, to chief minister Thakur Ram Lal in 1981.

“Before 1981, there was no provision of tribal flights. Whether in a medical emergency or otherwise, the people of Lahaul used to travel by foot, which used to take four days usually. Crossing the Rohtang Pass was literally a matter of life and death,” recalled A.N. Vidyarthi, retired chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh, who served as tribal development commissioner for many years.

“I was deputed by then-chief secretary K.C. Pandeya to meet top officials in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the defence secretary. They agreed, and an Indian Air Force helicopter was made available to the state government,” he said.

“Since then, a mechanism was developed to run winter flights. Former CM Virbhadra Singh got helipads made in several places in tribal areas. The state government also hired a helicopter on wet-lease. That’s the system even now.”

What the chopper does every year

On an average, the helicopter airlifts about 3,500-4,000 people from the tribal areas during the winter months between December to May. The government has a network of 19 or so helipads across the Rohtang Pass alone, beside Pangi, Bharmour and Kinnaur. The winter flights involve an expenditure of Rs 9-10 crore every year.

According to norms, beside some reserved seats for emergency cases, government officials posted in the tribal areas and locals are each allotted half the seats in every flight. The subsided fare is Rs 1,500 per passenger in normal cases, while medical emergency patients are flown for free.

Also read: Punjab’s Anandpur Sahib and Himachal’s Naina Devi to be connected soon by ropeway

What happened this year

This year has been particularly challenging due to spells of heavy snow as well as avalanches blocking the north portal of the under-construction Rohtang tunnel. They have continued to affect the flight schedule well into February, and there is a huge waiting list of 700-800 people waiting to board the chopper.

The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had expressed its helplessness to facilitate any human or vehicular movement after a massive avalanche hit the north portal of the under-construction tunnel.

“The weather this time was highly unpredictable. We were unable to operate scheduled flights. Heavy snow and frequent avalanches added to the miseries of our people, who otherwise used to get airlifted within a week or a fortnight at the most,” said Dr Ram Lal Markanda, the state’s minister for tribal development and also the MLA for Lahaul-Spiti.

Despair and hope

Over the last couple of winters, there have been a few tragic cases of the helicopter not being able to come to the rescue of those in need.

In March 2017, 27-year old Dolma, wife of Chhering Gyalsan from village Hansa, could not be airlifted when she developed complications in her pregnancy. Although the helicopter was arranged to shift her to Kullu, she died before the chopper could fly. Her angry husband said he had pinned his hopes on timely evacuation, and cursed the lack of medical facilities for her death.

That same winter, a 55-year-old woman in Tindi died of a serious ailment when she could not be airlifted. She was suffering from asthma and paralysis for a long time, and had been referred to Kullu hospital.

In the winter of 2018, another woman from Spiti died due to not being airlifted.

Yet, there are equally heart-warming stories of the chopper coming to the aid of people in need. Last year, a police constable posted in Lahaul-Spiti was airlifted straight to PGIMER, Chandigarh, after a massive heart attack, and survived. It was a similar story for a pregnant woman, who was airlifted straight to Shimla’s Kamla Nehru Hospital.

Just this month, two government servants posted in Lahaul-Spiti found themselves with nowhere to go, days before their wedding ceremonies. Several requests to the authorities to get them airlifted went in vain as the chopper simply could not fly over Rohtang as a result of the hostile weather.

Yet, finally, a chopper flying from Killar to evacuate stranded persons and a medical emergency case was diverted to Keylong on the intervention of Deputy Commissioner Ashwani Chaudhary to accommodate the duo — Yog Raj, a native of Mandi serving in the agriculture department at Keylong, and Devender Kullu, an engineer in the electricity board. A pregnant woman and her attendant also boarded the chopper and reached Kullu for a safe delivery.

Also read: Piyush Goyal hails India’s newly-connected villages, but 26% still await pucca roads

What the future holds

The Rohtang tunnel is finally expected to become operational this year, bringing much-needed relief to the tribal citizens, but minister Markanda admits that “flights during the winter for medical emergencies have to continue” until the government’s dream of an air-ambulance gets off the ground.

R.N. Batta, secretary of the state’s general administration department said the wheels (or rotors, in this case) are in motion.

“Last year, the Government of India agreed to our request to provide funding on the pattern of the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir for operating emergency flights and some necessary air-lifting facilities. The MHA has approved 10 such routes,” he said.

Till then, the chopper remains the locals’ only ray of hope.

Also read: India to construct 44 strategic roads along borders with China and Pakistan


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