Come summer and there is a beeline of tourist vehicles zooming up the serpentine Manali-Leh highway flanked by awe-inspiring mountains, countless waterfalls and deep gorges.
The destination is the 13,050 feet high Rohtang Pass, a bridge between the scenic hill resort of Manali and the Lahaul-Spiti valleys in Himachal Pradesh.
The mystique of Rohtang Pass, 51 km away from picturesque Manali in Himachal Pradesh, seemed eternal until the proposed 8.8 km-long tunnel at its base which is set to bypass the traffic from the mighty Pass on an all-weather road. Rohtang Pass is virtually the roof of the world. Its treacherous reputation is embedded in its name which translated into Persian means ‘heap of dead bodies.’
An hour or two spent on the Pass gives an idea that nature can be enchanting as well as dangerous. One’s emotions can change from sheer ecstasy at the breathtaking view of the Pir Panjal ranges to one of shock and awe as weather changes from sunshine to thunderous clouds and blizzards, from rainfall to hailstorms to snowfall- all in a matter of minutes.
Will the proposed tunnel bypassing the Rohtang Pass take away its sheen?
This is the fear gripping tourist industry in Manali as hoteliers, small traders and those running taxi services apprehend that once the tunnel gets through, the tourist rush to Rohtang Pass will dwindle.
“Tourists will prefer the fast-way through the tunnel. Instead of going to Rohtang, more tourists will explore and visit Lahaul and Spiti valleys beyond the Rohtang Pass since the tunnel will cut the distance to Keylong (headquarter of the twin valleys) by 46 km,” says Ram Kumar, a hotelier in Manali.
Suresh Rana, a trader, says, “Tourists could still be attracted to visit the Pass. But the question is whether the stretch of road leading up to Rohtang Pass will be maintained for vehicular traffic after the construction of the tunnel highway.” Presently, it takes a lot of effort and resources for the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to keep the pass open for traffic. For most part of the year-- over seven months-- the Pass remains out of bounds for traffic. The BRO employs snow-cutters to plough through the sheets of snow in late April or May to clear the road for traffic and the Pass closes by November due to heavy snowfall in the Pir Panjal ranges of the mighty Himalayas of which it forms a part. While the tunnel project to make the Manali-Leh highway an all-weather road was conceived in the 1980s, it received an impetus after the 1999 Kargil war when the road was used as a strategic route to transport men and weaponry to the war front.
The audacious attempt to tame the mighty Pass has been set in motion with the laying of foundation stone by UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi in June. The tunnel, set to be completed in five years will meet the strategic needs of the country by providing vital connectivity to Ladakh and kargil regions of J and K.
According to P K Mahajan, chief engineer of Project Rohtang, the tunnel would provide movement for 3000 vehicles to and fro daily. The project costing Rs 1495 crore is scheduled to be completed by 2015. It will reduce the 470-km journey between Manali and Leh by 100 km.
While the tourism industry in Manali may suffer due to construction of the tunnel, it will open up new tourist spots in the hitherto remote but pristine Lahaul, Spiti and Pangi valleys.
A district official in the Lahaul-Spiti administration said “locals in the valley are enthusiastic about the tunnel. Already the rates of land stretches along the highway before and after the tunnel have shot up as traders, hoteliers and speculators are purchasing the land to reap dividends after the landmark structure gets completed.”
Somebody’s loss will be somebody’s gain, it seems.