When Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens the 9.2-km Atal Tunnel under the 13,050-ft Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh, on October 3, he will be paying tribute to a bond of friendship between ex-PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and a tribal farmer, Tashi Dawa.
It was Dawa, alias Arjun Gopal, who had suggested to Vajpayee get a tunnel built under Rohtang, which in the local Bhoti dialect translates into “a pile of bodies” in view of the high casualty rate of those trying to cross the treacherous terrain in the winter months. Convinced, Vajpayee laid the foundation stone of the tunnel on May 23, 2002, while work on the project started in 2010.
“It took 10 years but this tunnel brings hope for the people of Lahaul-Spiti. With all-weather road connectivity, the dream of Vajpayee and Dawa has been realised,” says Ram Lal Markanda, the BJP legislator from Lahaul-Spiti and tribal development minister.
Dawa, who belonged to Tholang village in Lahaul valley, and Vajpayee had been friends during their stay at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) camp in Baroda, Gujarat, in 1942. Vajpayee used to call on Dawa whenever he visited his cottage at Prini village on the outskirts of Manali.
Dawa passed away in 2007 at the age of 83 and Vajpayee in 2018.
ECONOMY GETS A FILLIP
The opening of the tunnel will give a boost to the all-round development in the tribal valley. It will revolutionise horticulture, agriculture and tourism.
Farmers will get round-the-year access to markets and the reduced distance will bring down the transportation cost. Agriculture and horticulture units are expected to come up in the valley.
Vegetables such as potato, cauliflower and cabbage are grown in this belt, while medicinal plants such as seabuckthorn grow in abundance. People will have the option of taking up poultry and dairy farming.
BOOST FOR TOURISM
The tunnel will increase the tourist flow to the region, opening up new employment and self-employment avenues. With all-weather access to the valley, new hotels are expected to come up, creating jobs and stopping migration.
The valley residents shall have access to improved education and healthcare services.
A few residents, however, fear the price of the abrupt model of development. “Mindless mass tourism will add to the haphazard construction and this region may start resembling other popular tourist destinations of Himachal Pradesh,” said a resident, requesting anonymity.
The impact on the vulnerable ecosystem of the valley also needs to be assessed. Local culture and tradition will also need to be protected.
MILESTONES TO ATAL TUNNEL
June 2000: Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces construction of the tunnel under Rohtang Pass during a public meeting at Keylong.
May 6, 2002: Construction work entrusted to Border Roads Organisation.
May 23, 2002: Vajpayee lays the foundation stone of the tunnel.
June 28, 2010: United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi launches construction work of the tunnel.
October 3, 2020: The 9.2-km tunnel will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.