Shimla: As Himachal Pradesh gears up to vote in the final phase of the Lok Sabha elections on 19 May, the BJP and the Congress are locked in a battle to take credit for the yet-to-be-opened Rohtang Tunnel.
Both Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and Mandi MP Ram Swaroop Sharma are reminding voters that the ambitious project, delayed by nearly four years, is set to bring hope to the tribal population of the Lahaul and Spiti district.
At an election rally in Mandi on 10 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the public, “Immediately after the poll results on 23 May, I am coming to inaugurate the Rohtang Tunnel.”
However, the Border Roads Organisation, which is building the tunnel, says it’s neither ready for commissioning, nor expected to meet its 2019-end deadline.
The need for a tunnel
The 13,051 feet-high Rohtang Pass on the Manali-Leh highway remains blocked due to heavy snowfall for six months. As a result, the high-altitude district of Lahaul and Spiti bordering Ladakh and Tibet is cut off from the rest of the country between November and May every year.
The 8.8-km horse-shoe shaped Rohtang Tunnel is coming up below the pass to provide all-weather connectivity not just to Lahaul and Spiti but also to Ladakh. It was originally expected to be completed by 2015, with the deadline first extended to 2017 and then 2019.
Thanks to the incessant delays, the project has been beset by cost overruns — which have risen to Rs 4,000 crore from Rs 1,495 crore.
“Once the tunnel opens, sending cash crops, fruits and flowers grown in Lahaul-Spiti and Pangi to the markets will become easy. We can hope to earn well and see a revolution in the farm economy and tourism,” said Tashi Karpa, a farmer in Keylong, the capital of the district.
In the name of Vajpayee and Modi
The project was first envisioned under former PM Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and followed up by her son Rajiv Gandhi. But it was only under NDA PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the project began taking shape — something even the former Congress MLA from Lahaul and Spiti Ravi Thakur accepts, while emphasising his own party’s contribution to the dream. Things formalised only during the UPA regime, say Congress workers, when Sonia Gandhi laid the foundation stone in June 2010.
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said the tunnel is “Vajpayee’s biggest gift to Himachal Pradesh, and the whole economy of Lahaul-Spiti is going to change once it is commissioned by Modi”. He said the tunnel would be named after Vajpayee.
Thakur and Sharma also credited PM Modi’s special interest in the state, with Sharma saying, “The tunnel inauguration is the first task he has chosen after 23 May. That shows Modi has special place for Himachal Pradesh in his heart.”
He makes it a point to inform his voters about his own commitment to the project, narrating how he followed it up with Modi and defence ministers Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman over the last five years. Sitharaman also visited Manali in 2017 to take stock of the work.
Won’t be complete soon
The BRO has allowed polling officials and election material to move to and from Lahaul and Spiti via the tunnel ahead of polling day
“We have facilitated emergency evacuations from Lahaul-Spiti and all election related movements. There are 1,000-odd BRO personnel working inside the tunnel on a 24×7 basis,” said BRO chief engineer Brig. N.M. Chandrana.
However, forget 23 May, the tunnel is unlikely to be ready for traffic even by the end of the year, a senior BRO official told ThePrint.
“Only our civil work is complete. There are other targets to meet. The biggest challenge we are encountering inside the tunnel is water ingress from Seri Nullah, an underground glacier-fed rivulet,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.
He said after all the electrical fittings, lighting and surface finishing work is completed, the tunnel could be ready to be commissioned at the end of 2019 or in 2020.
Congress calls it Modi’s ‘lie’
Ashray Sharma, the Congress candidate from Mandi and the grandson of former union telecom minister Sukh Ram, called the BJP’s claims a “lie”.
“Modi ji also knows that the tunnel will not be complete at least for another year,” said 32-year-old Sharma, who quit the BJP just before the polls. The promise of inaugurating the tunnel after 23 May is a ‘misleading lie’ meant to ‘hoodwink the voters’, he added.
The Congress candidate claims that his grandfather, who was MoS (defence) in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, played a major role in getting the tunnel conceptualised and approved in principle.
“Dadaji (Sukh Ram) was instrumental in getting approval for the tunnel when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, and had become a regular visitor to Manali, where he had built a house,” Sharma said.