National Advisory Council Chairperson Sonia Gandhi said on Monday that the Rohtang tunnel construction was a "happy and historic" occasion for the nation, but she asked the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to ensure that there was no ecological degradation during the drilling.
She also expressed the hope that the BRO would complete the 8.8-km tunnel work within the deadline of 2015, when it would be thrown open for the public to drive through from Manali to Keylong without having to touch the icy heights of Rohtang Pass at an altitude of 3,978 metres.
"A little while ago, I laid the foundation stone for the Rohtang tunnel. It is both a happy and a historic occasion. With this, the dream of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has become true," Gandhi said at a public meeting here, about 15 km south of the Rohtang tunnel's south portal.
"Expanding roads, constructing tunnels and building bridges are important, but the BRO should ensure that these activities do not damage the ecology of these regions.
"This will only secure the lives of the future generations in the region. I hope the BRO will keep this in mind while carrying out the construction work," she said.
Recalling that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had laid the foundation stone for the approach roads to the tunnel in 2002, Gandhi said the tunnel, conceived during the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi in 1983 and later approved in 1987 during Rajiv Gandhi's regime, would help connect the tribal areas of Lahaul-Spiti in the state with other parts of the country all year long.
"The tunnel will also provide for an alternative, all-weather road route for the civilians and armed forces to strategically important Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir," she said, acknowledging that the construction at this altitude of over 3,000 metres was a "difficult and challenging" job.
Remembering the martyrs from the armed forces from Himachal Pradesh, the Congress President told a 6,000-strong crowd that the UPA government at the Centre was sensitive towards the welfare of serving and retired defence personnel.
Noting that the areas north of Rohtang Pass remained cut off for over six months due to snow, she said the tunnel would help keep them connected to the world for the whole year, thereby providing them access to healthcare, education, employment and economic development.
Gandhi said the UPA governments at the Centre since 2004 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had laid emphasis on construction of roads, bridges, hospitals and schools and added that the centre had recently granted two new power projects for the state, apart from the already approved three hydro power projects.
Gandhi said all the flagship programmes of the UPA such as NREGA and Grameen Vidyut Yojna were being implemented in all districts of the state. A central university and an IIT have been provided for Himachal Pradesh.
She said HP Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal had placed certain demands for development projects, as did her party colleagues from the state. Among them were proposals for a special hospital for the region and an airport, which she promised to take up with Central Ministers.
Dhumal in his address said the Rohtang tunnel would meet the long-standing demand of the region for yearlong connectivity and help the armed forces who had to carry out air maintenance of troops deployed in Ladakh in the winters.
Pointing to the infrastructure development done by China along its borders with India, Dhumal made a demand for a railway line via the region to Leh that would help in transporting heavy equipment including battle tanks for the armed forces, apart from enabling passenger traffic.He recalled that during the 1999 Kargil war, the Manali-Leh highway became the lifeline for the Indian soldiers battling Pakistani troops and infiltrators.
Noting that the state contributed a large number of personnel to the armed forces, he said the country's first Param Vir Chakra, the highest war medal, was awarded to a martyr from the state and of the four PVCs during Kargil war, two were from Himachal Pradesh.
Dhumal made a plea with Defence Minister A K Antony to review and change the Recruitable Male Population formula for enlisting armed forces personnel and allow all willing youth from the state to become soldiers. He also asked him to grant the 'One Rank-One Pension' demand in full to the ex-servicemen, which has been partially met recently.
He appealed to the Centre to extend the excise exemption for Himachal Pradesh that had expired recently, as also for other hilly states such as Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir.
Antony, in his address, said the Centre was committed to modernising the armed forces and an important part of the plan was upgrading the infrastructure in difficult and remote, including border roads to provide better connectivity.
"In this context, the Rohtang Pass posed a major problem for the armed forces. The instances of avalanches, heavy snowfall, high velocity winds and sub-zero temperatures cut all communication of the region with the rest of the nation.
"The Army suggested this tunnel to be developed as an all-weather alternative road," he said.
He said the tunnel construction would be completed within 63 months to be ready by 2015 and the Defence Ministry had set up a steering committee under an Additional Secretary to monitor the work and remove impediments immediately. PTI