The construction of a tunnel under the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh, one of the country’s strategically most important defence infrastructure projects, has been completed, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Thursday. “To secure India’s defences, we are developing connectivity infrastructure in border areas,” he said in his speech presenting the Union Budget 2018-19. “Rohtang tunnel has been completed to provide all-weather connectivity to the Ladakh region. The contract for construction of Zojila Pass tunnel (located between Srinagar and Leh) of more than 14 km is progressing well. I now propose to take up construction of a tunnel under Sela Pass (in Arunachal Pradesh),” he said.

Officials involved in the construction of the 8.8-km horseshoe-shaped Rohtang tunnel, an engineering marvel that will ensure all-weather connectivity to the landlocked Lahaul Valley from tourist resort Manali, told IANS the tunnel’s excavation was completed in October last. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a wing of the Defence Ministry that is constructing the tunnel, aims to open the Rohtang tunnel, which was earlier scheduled to be completed by 2015, for traffic in 2019. The project is being executed by the BRO in collaboration with Strabag-Afcons, a 60:40 joint venture between Strabag SE of Austria and India’s Afcons Infrastructure Ltd.

Once ready, the Rohtang tunnel will be a boon for the cold deserts of Himachal’s Lahaul Valley, where over 20,000 people remain cut off from the rest of India in winter owing to the closure of the Rohtang Pass, located about 50 km from Manali and a major attraction for both domestic and foreign tourists. Besides reducing road distance by approximately 46 km and saving travel time of about four hours, the tunnel will open up new vistas of trade and tourism and generate jobs for the locals.

The tunnel will provide ample room for two-way traffic and is designed to cater to a maximum vehicular speed of 80 km an hour. The Rs 1,495-crore tunnel’s foundation stone was laid by Congress president Sonia Gandhi on June 28, 2010, in the picturesque Solang Valley. Official sources told IANS the delay in the tunnel construction led to a cost overrun of over Rs 400 crore.

The Rohtang Tunnel is a key element in the Defence Ministry’s attempts to make the entire 475-km-long Manali-Keylong-Leh highway, used by the armed forces to reach forward areas in Ladakh bordering China and Pakistan, motorable round the year, said, officials.

The strategic importance of the Manali-Leh link was realised by the Indian government almost a decade ago when Pakistan tried to cut off the Srinagar-Leh road during the Kargil conflict, in a bid to restrict road access to Ladakh. Currently, the movement of armed forces to the forward areas in Ladakh from Manali side, that doesn’t fall in the firing range of Pakistan forces, is feasible only from June to mid-December.