New Delhi: Amid the border standoff with China at Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, India has opened a nearly 9-kilometre long tunnel after a decade of digging underneath the Himalayan Mountains at more than 3,000 meters.
The Atal Rohtang Tunnel, according to a report by Voice of America, bypasses a snowbound mountain pass in winter and reduces the journey to Ladakh by 46 kilometres, where Indian and Chinese forces are presently engaged in a clash with each other.
The Atal tunnel is said to be “able to let India rapidly deploy armed forces personnel and equipment” to Ladakh, where India and China are engaged in a standoff since May this year, the Voice of America report said.
The world’s longest high-altitude tunnel is part of a network of roads India is racing to build in challenging mountainous terrain to improve connectivity to its Himalayan border with China, large stretches of which are still disputed.
Quoting analysts, the report said that rapid construction of border infrastructure is also one of the reasons increasing tensions with Beijing as the most serious military clash in decades between the Asian rivals slips into its sixth month.
While many of the projects like the Atal tunnel took years to complete, it is being dubbed an attempt by India to “redouble efforts to expedite” other border roads, bridges and high-altitude airstrips.
The report added that mountainside is blasted by engineers and drilling through rock near Chilling hamlet, about 250 kilometres west of the area where Indian and Chinese armed forces personnel are engaged in closeness in Ladakh to expedite work on another road that will give crucial access to the Himalayan dessert in winter which is expected to be completed in three years.
Quoting Indian officials, the report said that target is to complete more than 60 key roads by 2022.
Last year, India opened another key road, the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road that winds through mountain passes connecting to a strategic airstrip at about 5,000 meters, close to the Chinese border in Ladakh.
It’s challenging to try and reduce the gap with China’s network of roads and helipads on its side of the border and gain all-year-round access to remote areas like Ladakh, where military supplies have to be airlifted in winter months when heavy snow buries key roads.
Experts, according to the report, have long urged India to ramp up its border infrastructure, pointing out the critical role that fast movement of armed forces personnel and military hardware can play in case of a full-blown conflict.
The two countries have had several face-offs along their border since they fought a brief war in 1962.
“The Sino Indian military balance has always been tilting by and large in favour of China, and if we have to tilt that balance, one of the parameters is to get our infrastructure right,” the report quoted Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi as saying.
“Otherwise we won’t be able to get our forces and equipment to the border for a quick reaction. On the other hand, China can sustain its troops for a long period,” he added.
Pertinently, on October 6, barely 72 hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s longest highway tunnel—Atal Rohtang Tunnel in Himachal, three accidents were witnessed inside the tunnel.
Due to the tunnel installation, a report by Outlook India said that Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and district authorities are also facing new concerns.
Hundreds of tourists and motorists have taken to over-speeding and racing in the newly opened tunnel, which has already resulted in three accidents.
“Three accidents were reported in a single day after the tunnel was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on October 3. The accidents were recorded by the CCTV cameras installed inside the tunnel. Showing a complete disregard for traffic rules, tourists and motorists have been clicking selfies while riding,” Outlook India quoted Brigadier K.P. Purushothaman, BRO Chief Engineer, Atal Tunnel as having said.
Purushothaman has claimed that he requested for police deployment in the tunnel. “Once the inaugural function finished, there has been scant deployment of traffic police personnel, resulting in complete chaos and rash driving by tourists from Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh,” said Brigadier K.P. Purushothaman.
Quoting Kullu SP Gaurav Singh, the report said that police have taken steps to curb reckless driving and over-speeding in the tunnel.
“We have installed doppler radar inside the tunnel, which will detect over-speeding. Those violating the prescribed speed limit (40km to 80 km) will be issued a challan,” said Singh
Meanwhile, Tribal Affairs Minister and BJP MLA from Lahaul Spiti, Dr. Ram Lal Markanda has also urged the local district administration to take immediate action in this regard to prevent further incidents.