BY VISHAL GULATI
Manali, Sep 30 (IANS) Years have gone since the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made his exit from this Himachal Pradesh tourist resort, but the legends of his love for locals and the state continue to live.
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coming here this Saturday to inaugurate the 9.02-km long horseshoe-shaped single-tube, two-lane tunnel — one of India’s strategically most important infrastructure projects beneath the majestic Rohtang Pass — many locals still insist it was Vajpayee’s way of repaying where he preferred to spend his time in solitude.
Considered a marvel of engineering motorways, the Rohtang tunnel, a dream of Vajpayee and named after him posthumously, has been completed after 10 years of sheer hard work by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) with an outlay of Rs 3,200 crore.
Residents of Prini, located on the outskirts of Manali where the gentleman politician had built a cottage, believe Vajpayee was the man behind cementing the “tunnel of friendship” constructed at 3,000 metres above sea level beneath the majestic Rohtang Pass — the only road link between this town and the landlocked Lahaul Valley.
Many believe the tunnel construction was the promise that Vajpayee had made to his old-time friend Tashi Dawa, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader.
“On their regular interactions, largely during Vajpayee’s visit to his cottage (in Prini), they discussed in detail the hardships the people of Lahaul were facing while crossing the Rohtang Pass, especially during winters,” Dawa’s son Ram Dev, who retired from the Information and Public Relations Department, told IANS.
He said Vajpayee and Dawa became friends during a training camp organised by the RSS at Vadodara in 1942.
Dawa, alias Arjun Gopal, was a resident of Tholang in Lahaul-Spiti district.
Ram Dev, who will be among first 15 passengers travelling via tunnel in a bus that will be flagged off by Modi during inauguration, said his father, who fought for the need to construct the tunnel to avoid the Rohtang Pass hardships, died on December 2, 2007, while crossing it.
“He was unwell and taken to a Manali hospital in a vehicle. As we were crossing the Rohtang Pass, he suddenly became breathless and collapsed. He died owing to lack of oxygen at the high altitude,” an emotional Ram Dev told IANS.
“In true sense, the tunnel, which will reduce the hardships and ensure all-weather connectivity between Manali and Lahaul, is a bond of friendship,” he said.
Recalling one of their meetings, he added: “When Vajpayeeji became prime minister for the first time in 1998, my father met him in Delhi along with a delegation of people from the Lahaul Valley.”
People of Lahaul, who are largely Buddhist and earn their livelihood by growing a single crop of potatoes, peas and exotic vegetables, believe the tunnel construction will bring economic prosperity in the otherwise snow-bound, inhospitable region.
Before the tunnel construction, the Rohtang Pass, 70 per cent of which remains under snow even during summer, is the only gateway to Lahaul towards Manali.
Prem Thakur, who runs a hotel close to Vajpayee’s cottage, fondly remembered Vajpayee’s meetings with Dawa.
“Whenever Vajpayeeji used to visit Prini, he used to call locals. He used to say that Tashi Dawa didn’t forget to remind him time and again the promise to construct the tunnel,” Thakur told IANS.
Vajpayee last visited the cottage, currently out of bounds for people, for a quiet sojourn in June 2006. That was two years after his government was voted out in the national elections.
Since then the cottage has worn a deserted look. Neighbours fondly recall the days when Vajpayee as Prime Minister came here every summer and mingled with the locals.
Besides as an orator, poet and statesman, locals remember Vajpayee’s love for trout fish on a platter during his stay in Prini.
Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, had announced at a public meeting in Keylong, the district headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, on June 3, 2002, that a tunnel would be constructed beneath the Rohtang Pass.
“Development and defence, for both aspects this Rohtang tunnel was much required and today it is going to be started,” Vajpayee had announced at a public meeting in Manali on May 24, 2002, where then Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal was also present.
“I remember two things as I am witness to both of them,” said B.D. Sharma, a former Press Secretary to the Chief Minister.
“One, the late Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji after assuming the office of Prime Minister in 1999 visited Keylong and announced the construction of the tunnel. He said his old friend had been requesting him for the construction of the tunnel across Rohtang Pass and this will be his friendship gift to him and the people of Lahaul.
“Later in the year 2002 or so, Atal Bihariji performed the foundation laying ceremony of this tunnel after which he addressed a public meeting at SASE, near Manali. Why the foundation of this tunnel was laid again in 2010 could not be understood,” Sharma told IANS.
Solang, popular among skiers for snow and steep pistes, or ski tracks, just 13 km uphill from Manali, still has a foundation stone of the Rohtang tunnel.
The stone reads: “Commissioning of works for access road to south portal of proposed Rohtang Tunnel by Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”
At the same spot, the tunnel’s foundation stone was laid by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi on June 28, 2010.
The tunnel will shorten the distance between Manali and Keylong by 46 km, shortening the travel time by nearly three hours.
With the maximum speed limit of 80 km per hour, the tunnel is expected to see traffic of 3,000 cars and 1,500 trucks a day.
The tunnel has consumed 12,252 metric tonne steel, 1,69,426 metric tonne cement and 1,01,336 metric tonnes of concrete, and excavated out 5,05,264 metric tonnes of soil and rocks by adopting the latest Austrian tunneling method for construction.
The construction contract of the tunnel was awarded to Strabag-Afcons, a joint venture between India-based Afcons Infrastructure and Austria’s Strabag.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)