(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Shishir Gupta)
Cutting through the red-tape, the Union defence ministry has decided to ask the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to build a 4.25-kilometre tunnel under the 5,091-metre-high Shinkun La pass to make an all-weather axis from Manali to Leh via Darcha-Padun-Nimmu alignment to supply Indian Army formations in Ladakh sector. The snow-free axis is expected to be completed by 2024.
According to South Block officials, defence minister Rajnath Singh and top officials decided in favour of the BRO proposal instead of National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), which was recommending an altogether new road alignment with a 13.5km tunnel under Shinkun La.
“Both BRO and NHIDCL made presentations before the minister in March 2021. After studying both the proposals, the defence ministry has decided in favour of shorter tunnel. The decision could not be put on the paper as a number of senior officials involved in this project were hit by Covid-19 infection,” said a top official. The NHIDCL has been preparing detailed project report of the project since 2017, much before the Chinese Army transgressed into Ladakh in May 2020.
It is understood that the total cost of the BRO tunnel construction will be around ₹1,000 crore due to simple design and requirement of basic electromechanical fittings. The 4.25km tunnel will have longitudinal ventilation using banana fans, which require minimum electricity and operational costs.
The Darcha-Padum-Nimmu road is 297-kilometre long with 100km already converted into double lane and black-topped by the BRO last year at the height of India-China border skirmish. While the distance between Manali and Leh will remain the same with the new road, the axis will remain totally snow-free round the year allowing movement of both troops and equipment to feed Ladakh, Kargil and Siachen sectors.
The present Manali-Sarchu-Upshi-Leh road goes over four high mountain passes of around 5,000-metre in height even after construction of Atal tunnel under Rohtang pass and remains snowed for at least two to three months during winter.
The four passes on present Manali-Leh route are: Baralacha La (16500 feet), Nakee La (15547 feet), Lachung La (16616 feet) and Tanglang La (17480 feet).