Atal Tunnel. Photo courtesy: Kesang Thakur and Anu Sabhlok.
Atal Tunnel. Photo courtesy: Kesang Thakur and Anu Sabhlok.

Tunnel to the future

How the Atal Tunnel is reshaping life in Lahaul.

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.

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Himal Southasian