Infrastructure reconfigures how we experience space and time, and the 9.02-kilometre-long Atal Tunnel connecting the Kullu valley to the district of Lahaul and Spiti of Himachal Pradesh, is no exception. Until recently, the Lahaul valley had to be accessed via the Rohtang Pass. Perched at almost 4000 metres above sea level, Rohtang (which means a pile of dead bodies) is a difficult and circuitous route, with unpredictable weather, treacherous roads and never-ending traffic jams. Constructed over a span of ten years, after multiple geological tests, feasibility studies and structural redesigns, this horseshoe-shaped tunnel was formally inaugurated in October 2020. Several governments (including Congress, Janata Dal, National Front and Bharatiya Janata Party) have put their stamp on this complex endeavour. Eventually named as Atal Tunnel by the Union Cabinet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, it bypasses the Rohtang Pass, making Lahaul accessible all year round and reducing the travel time by several hours.
While the demand for the tunnel has existed for several decades, it was only after the 1999 Kargil war that it became a necessity for the government. The tunnel plays a strategic role by making border areas accessible year-round to military caravans, ensuring quicker supplies to military camps. Abhay Chand Rana, a member of the local delegation that met with the central government in 1998 – one amongst several interest groups that lobbied for the tunnel – told us, “We know that the tunnel came because of military need and not so much to fulfill the long-standing demand of residents.” Yet, some Lahaulis express pride at being able to contribute to national security and narrate stories of brave Lahauli people who were instrumental in fighting foreign incursions at the border in Ladakh. The Border Roads Organisation and the Indian military, have been what Himika Bhattacharya calls a ‘spectral presence’ in Lahaul for several decades now – building roads, helping out in times of natural calamities or accidents, but mostly residing in walled enclaves with little interaction with local communities.
“Now that I have travelled through the Atal Tunnel, I want to see the Kashmir tunnel as well”, the late Gonbo Barongpa had optimistically remarked after seeing the tunnel at the age of ninety-eight. As a trader, Gonbo had spent a significant part of his youth crossing over the precarious trans-Himalayan Mountain passes by foot. He had hoped of travelling through the tunnel in his lifetime. Perceived as remote and isolated, Lahaul was a place that youth left to build their future. Today, with the construction of the tunnel, the valley has become a place of possibilities for its young people, transforming livelihoods in Lahaul.
Imaginations at the grassroots
After the construction of Atal Tunnel, brick and cement are now cheaper to procure and are quickly replacing local earth and stone as building materials. Agricultural patterns are also shifting with enhanced connectivity. Easier market access is paving the way for vigorous commercial agriculture and newer crop varieties. Of all these changes, the most evident is the exponential increase in tourism. Thousands of tourists and vehicles gather every day at the helipad at Sissu village, thereby manifesting the long-awaited desire of establishing a model ‘tourist village’ here. In the early 1990s, anticipating the growth of tourism in the area, small-scale infrastructure such as a cafeteria, toilets, and a concrete wall enclosing the Khagling Tso (lake) in Sissu were built by the Himachal Pradesh government. These infrastructures finally seem to have come out of their suspended state.
The cafeteria too has been renamed after the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At the cafeteria’s entrance, a colourful installation reads ‘I Love Lahaul’, setting the stage for eager selfies, attempting to outshine the grandeur of the Himalaya. The yellow and orange hues of willow and poplar trees here are now used as the backdrops for wedding photoshoots. While strolling around here, we met Rajesh and he offered us tea at one of the makeshift stalls selling food.
Rajesh used to run a popular restaurant in the tourist town of Manali named ‘Vibes’, serving traditional meals of Himachal Pradesh – his speciality. His restaurant business faced the brunt of COVID-19 lockdowns, as paying rentals and employee salaries became impossible with no tourists around, eventually forcing him to close shop. Now that Manali and Lahaul are connected year-round, Rajesh is working to bring this hospitality expertise to his village Shashin, hoping for the valley’s new status to provide fertile grounds for ideas.
Today, with the construction of the tunnel, the valley has become a place of possibilities for its young people, transforming livelihoods in Lahaul.
He is enthusiastically working on setting up a local cheese-based enterprise and developing other products from locally sourced milk. According to him, “The milk in Lahaul is very different from the plains of Punjab and Haryana”. In fact, Rajesh is seeking alternate usages of local milk-based products, and for one such idea, he is already in conversation with a pet food supplier in Mumbai for bone-shaped, baked Chhurpi (a local cheese). To see the diversity in wild herbs, we accompanied him to an open patch of field close to the river. As he briefed us on the medicinal properties of sage, he contemplated the scope of marketing high-altitude herbs as products for urban consumers. Rajesh has been documenting the local knowledge of flora and fauna over the last two years and has decided to name his next enterprise ‘Grassroots’.
Rajesh belongs to the generation of young Lahaulis who went across the Rohtang Pass to cities such as Shimla, Chandigarh and Delhi to pursue higher education. Like many other young Lahaulis who are choosing to return and pursue livelihood prospects in the valley, Rajesh too is driven by utilising experiences gained outside of Lahaul to reimagine his own relationship with home. Lahauli youth, he firmly believes, can navigate the transformations that the tunnel will bring in a sustainable way.
Existing writings on the tunnel’s socio-cultural and ecological impacts often enforce a rigid narrative of ‘cultural extinction’. Rajesh counters this perception by stating that there will always be regeneration. His family are the hereditary pujaris (priests) of Raja Gepang, the main deity of Lahaul, and despite socio-cultural alterations, he argues that his family will continue attending to the religious duties assigned to them, while embracing the ‘progress’ of Lahuli society and the pull of the valley’s indigenous belief system. He elaborates, “our faith in animistic deities and elements is a sort of lingering pain, a baggage that we will always carry within us. No matter how strong the desire of Lahaulis to modernise, our faith will keep erupting as this lingering feeling. We will always be seeking something we think we have lost.”
In valuing indigenous ideas of coexistence, Lahauli youth like Rajesh propose a vision of progress that encompasses the health of the environment as well. He voices for symbiotic living by citing the example of Himalayan Ibex, among other wildlife that Lahaul is home to. This sensibility also stems from the rising cases of human-wildlife conflicts in the valley.
Patisserie in the valley of buckwheat
Nutan and Tej Prakash Rai are a young couple. Nutan is from Koksar village of Lahaul and Tej hails from the lower hills of District Mandi. They now co-own a small bakery named ‘Croissants Patisserie 08’ in Sissu village. After completing a degree in hotel management, Tej worked within the hospitality sector across India, with the aim of starting his own business someday. Tej and Nutan’s initial plan was to set up their first enterprise in Mandi, but with the town still peripheral to popular tourism unlike Shimla and Manali, they were sceptical. Sissu’s all year-round accessibility with the tunnel, its weather, and for Nutan simply being at home was promising.
Given the absence of basic infrastructure, villages like Sissu and Koksar risk becoming another unregulated Manali.
In the last year alone, tourist arrivals far exceeded their expectations. We were told that in the summer season of 2021, the tunnel witnessed the movement of about 7000 vehicles per day. Official statistics show a four-fold increase in traffic after the tunnel’s inauguration. Given the high numbers of incoming tourists that summer, the couple had to start baking at five in the morning. Tej also saw a visible infrastructural change in Lahaul with commercial constructions emerging along the Manali-Leh highway. “The valley is certainly developing from a business point of view. Earlier, one would only find seasonal dhabas [food stalls] along the main road. Now, new year-long enterprises are coming up,” he remarked.
Infrastructure is powerful in that it can connect as well as disconnect. Nutan’s village Koksar, she says is now ‘cut off’ as tourists are hardly diverting right of the tunnel to visit the Rohtang pass, the old route prior to the tunnel. Apparently, this pattern of influx versus desertion has seen a reversal in terms of seasonality. When we visited Koksar in November, the village was swarming with tourists and cars. It simply felt like the overcrowded ‘snow points’ of Manali had been transported here. The villagers had creatively transformed the boot space of vans into counters for fast food. There was a visible presence of local women as roadside vendors, while local men from their jeeps called out to tourists offering rides to snow points.
The tunnel has unlocked a world of possibilities for Lahaulis but also renders the valley highly vulnerable to all kinds of resource extraction.
The tunnel has reworked the spatio-temporality of life in Koksar. Kunga and his wife, who have been running a popular dhaba since 1998, reiterated the concern about Koksar’s newly ‘disconnected’ status. “The crowd you see today is only because tourists can still find snow on this side. Koksar was completely empty throughout the summer. Why will the tourists come to this side now?” said Kunga, disappointed.
Koksar is amongst the coldest places in Lahaul, and given its proximity to the Rohtang pass, villagers migrate to their second homes in Kullu and Manali as temperatures drop. Every year, around October-November, Kunga and his wife disassemble their shop to descend to a warmer climate. Upon enquiring about changes in Koksar after the tunnel, Kunga mentions that now even locals have opened small businesses. Earlier, dhabas were run by seasonal migrants from Nepal and Uttar Pradesh on land rented out by the locals.
This nascent tourism is also brewing several local-level conflicts within villages over issues such as sharing of commercial boundaries. Given the absence of basic infrastructure, villages like Sissu and Koksar risk becoming another unregulated Manali. Waste management has emerged as a pressing concern, with local panchayats (village councils), Mahila Mandals (women groups), and Yuva Mandals (youth groups) forced to clear the garbage left behind. Though these local bodies are at the forefront of organising safai abhiyans (cleaning drives) and awareness initiatives, in the absence of waste management facilities, they are left with no option but to burn or dump the waste locally, or at most, transfer at their own expense to an already burdened Waste to Energy plant in Manali.
Repeated demands have been made by the Lahauli community to the authorities, both at the district and state level, for devising a tourism master plan or a vision document. This concern was expressed yet again in the latest tourism edition of Chandertal, a reputed local cultural magazine. Writers in this edition have reflected extensively on the history and politics of the tunnel, its socio-cultural impacts, changing land use patterns, climate change, the possibilities of a ‘Bhutan’ model in Lahaul, and practical steps for sustainable tourism, among other topics. The edition establishes Lahaul’s ecological fragility by bringing forth long-term data on glacial change. The article titled Lahaul aur Spiti: Prakriti ka naisgrik bhandar (Lahaul and Spiti: Natural Reserve of Nature) by Lahauli Glaciologist, Milap Chand Sharma, makes a case for local knowledge, designs, material and consent as the basis for development. Sharma warns that large-scale adventure tourism and heavy vehicular movement would aggravate the melting of glaciers, as ongoing studies indicate that carbon and dust particles have started reaching these areas.
While there is an opportunity to create a uniquely Lahauli sustainable model of development with sensitive planning and community engagement, Lahaulis will still have to confront significant ecological and socio-cultural shifts in the region.
The planning of infrastructure like the Atal Tunnel at the national level, which comes from a predominantly geopolitical perspective, in contrast to the lack of basic infrastructure experienced at the local level, illustrates how this project was imagined in isolation, oblivious to its wider impacts. But the Lahauli community has repeatedly put forward ethical and context-specific solutions. Instead of indiscriminately pushing for newer construction, locals have converted portions of their existing houses as tourist homestays. As of now, close to 500 homestays have been officially registered in the valley. Youth-led initiatives are especially making strides towards setting up sustainable tourism infrastructures that centre local communities.
Gathering at Zomsa
In Keylong, we met Tanzin Bodh, who founded the non-profit organisation called Life and Heritage of Lahaul (LAHOL) to preserve and promote the valley’s cultural heritage. He also co-runs a youth culture centre and hostel called Zomsa (gathering place), which is based out of an 80-year-old mud house he recently renovated with the help of villagers and non-local volunteers. When the original owners moved out, it took him over one and a half years to get the abandoned mud house to a functional state. “Our survey shows that there are about five mud houses left in Keylong village. We hope to renovate more of such mud buildings as these are intrinsic to our ways of being,” he shares. Tanzin started thinking tangibly about the relationship between sustainability and culture after his brief experience in Ladakh. After pursuing a master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and completing the Naropa Fellowship programme, he returned to Lahaul to implement his ideas. “Ladakh is more developed than Lahaul. They have managed to carry their culture along in their architecture. I wish to implement a similar cultural sensibility in Lahaul,” he spoke determinedly.
Tanzin had always imagined Zomsa as a collective space for the Lahauli community, especially for its youth. Young people who volunteered for the renovation experienced first-hand the traditional mud plastering techniques, which his generation, he argues, is somewhat disconnected from. He hopes to conduct more such experiential programmes in future. In collaboration with young Lahauli women artisans, Tanzin has also initiated a social enterprise called Garshalooms, to create a market for Lahauli woollen socks which recently were awarded a Geographical Indication (GI) tag.
The night we spent at Zomsa certainly felt like a cultural exchange and far more unique from the isolated experience of a hotel. Over cups of sa cha (salted tea), bultru thukpa (buckwheat noodle soup) and lawaar (buckwheat pancake), seated around the warm tandoor of this traditional zomsa, we learnt about politics and the state of education in Bihar from three young people who were staying at the hostel. In turn, these young curious minds flooded Tanzin with questions about his initiatives and the challenges he faced in the process.
In Zomsa, we also met Sonam Zangpo, the newly elected Pradhan of Keylong panchayat. Known for his community work as part of the Young Drukpa Association (YDA) Garsha, Sonam talked about the need for transformative politics at the grassroots and the importance of fighting perceptions and biases that the older generation associate with youth.
What lies ahead?
The tunnel has unlocked a world of possibilities for Lahaulis but also renders the valley highly vulnerable to all kinds of resource extraction. Under the garb of clean energy, the state government aggressively pushes mega hydropower projects, with around 20 large dams proposed in the Chenab basin. To defend tribal land rights, youth-led forums have been set up in several villages, rejecting dams as undemocratic, top-down interventions. While these ongoing interventions of Lahauli youth, reimagining and reclaiming their own territory, are certainly inspiring, the presence of Lahauli women in spaces of business and politics still remains minimal. Through education, employment, artisanal skills, and related opportunities, Lahauli women are increasingly charting their path towards socio-economic independence. However, women’s active presence in entrepreneurship in Lahaul are still impacted by patriarchal customary rules wherein land can be inherited only by men unless bequeathed directly in a will, thus limiting economic opportunities for women. How easy will it be for the younger generation of women to return to Lahaul to reimagine and reclaim their relationships with home and the wider community? And what are the barriers to ensuring a future that is both sustainable and equitable? In that regard, the effects of seemingly mundane, material infrastructures are also deeply socio-cultural.
Unless the people of Lahaul, civil society organisations and the government come together to envision the direction they want for the region’s development following the tunnel’s construction, Sissu and Keylong could face traffic, waste, and pollution problems, similar to Manali. While there is an opportunity to create a uniquely Lahauli sustainable model of development with sensitive planning and community engagement, local testimonies show that even as the valley benefits from enhanced connectivity, Lahaulis will still have to confront significant ecological and socio-cultural shifts in the region.
Kesang Thakur is an independent researcher from Lahaul and co-founder of Filming Lahaul, a visual ethnography project. Anu Sabhlok is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at IISER Mohali. For about a decade now, she has been conducting ethnographic research on border infrastructures, tracing circulations of material, labour and ideas that accompany road construction sites in Lahaul- Spiti and Ladakh.