India digs under the top of the world to match a rival

ROHTANG PASS, India – The name of this white-knuckle pass, one of the highest
in the world, means “pile of corpses” in the Tibetan language. Every year a few
dozen people die trying to cross these spiky Himalayan peaks.

For six months the road is snowbound,
putting at the mercy of the elements tens of thousands of Indian troops posted
beyond it in this remote but strategically important region along India’s long
and disputed border with China.

In the past decade, as China has furiously
built up its military and civilian infrastructure on its side of the border,
the Rohtang Pass on the Indian side has stood as mute testimony to India’s
inability and unwillingness to master its far-flung and rugged outermost

But now, India is racing to match its rival
for regional and global power, building and bolstering airstrips and army
outposts, shoring up neglected roads and – finally, decades after it was first
proposed – building a tunnel to bypass the deadly Rohtang Pass.
In June, work started on the ambitious project, which will take five years and
require boring eight kilometres through the Pir Panjal range. Several other tunnels,
which would allow all-weather access to Ladakh, which abuts the Tibetan
Plateau, are also in the works.

“What India is belatedly seeking to do is
to improve its defences by upgrading its logistics,” said Brahma Chellaney, an
analyst who tracks the India-China relationship at the Center for Policy
Research in New Delhi, in an e-mail. “By building new railroads, airports and
highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces
to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.”

As a result, he said, “The Sino-Indian
border remains more unstable than the Pakistani-Indian frontier.”

India and China are hardly enemies, but
much of the 4,057-kilometre border they share is disputed or ill marked. The
two countries fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962, and while these
days they have, on the surface, a mostly cordial relationship, it is marked by
tension over border disputes and the future of Tibet and its leader, the Dalai
Lama, who lives in exile in India.
China’s push to develop its infrastructure on its side of the border –
including an all-weather railway to Tibet that includes the world’s highest
tunnel, at 4,880 meters – is viewed with considerable suspicion in India.
For much of its history India has regarded the Himalayas as a form of protection,
not a barrier to be overcome, said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, an expert in
India-China relations at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

“The Indian side has been very slow to
develop the border areas,” Rajagopalan said. “They believed if you improved the
infrastructure it would only allow the Chinese to walk into your territory.
This was very foolish and naive.”

Nearly 500 kilometres of winding road lead
from the town of Manali, through the verdant Kullu Valley, to Ladakh, an alpine
desert that abuts the Tibetan plateau.

Tens of thousands of Indian army troops are
stationed among Ladakh’s barren peaks, and the region borders several potential
trouble spots, including Aksai Chin, a region that India claims as part of its
territory but that China administers. North of Ladakh is the Siachen Glacier, a
river of barren ice that India and Pakistan have fought over intermittently
since the 1980s. Both countries maintain outposts on the glacier, which sits at
an altitude of 6,100 meters.

During the summer, thousands of trucks,
laden with supplies to last the harsh mountain winters, rumble up the two roads
that lead to Ladakh, from Manali and Srinagar, the summer capital of
Indian-administered Kashmir.

The road from Ladakh to Srinagar is also
closed in the winter, and because of its proximity to the Line of Control that
splits Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Indian officials worry that the road
can easily be cut, as it was in 1999, when the two countries clashed at Kargil.

Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired brigadier who
runs the Center for Land Warfare Studies, a New Delhi research institution,
said India could not afford to be cut off from its most vulnerable reaches half
of the year.
“As long as we have these territorial disputes you cannot rule out another
border conflict,” Kanwal said. “We would like to make sure that we can deploy
our forces in the right quantities in the right places.”

The tunnel has been on the drawing board
for decades, said P.K. Mahajan, the chief engineer on the $320 million project.
He first became involved as a young engineer in 1988, when he helped carry out
a feasibility study, five years after the project was first proposed by Indira
Gandhi, then the prime minister.

“It is only now that these projects are
seeing the light of day,” Mahajan said.
The challenges of building a long tunnel in the rough environment of the Pir
Panjal are enormous. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range.
They shift and grind, still moving, expanding and shrinking.
That makes life tough for people like Thomas Riedel, a German contractor working
at the north end of the tunnel. Because no one is sure what kind of rock will
be found inside the mountain, the tunnel will be built using a painstaking
method of blasting and digging, rather than the tunnel-boring machines that
have revolutionized tunnel construction in recent years.

“Nobody can look inside the mountain,”
Riedel said. “That is where we will find problems.” Just weeks into what will
be at least five years of digging, the workers encountered their first
unexpected obstacle: 0.3 meters of snow. In June.

The tunnel will sit beneath more than a 1.6
kilometres of snow-covered rock for much of its length. Ventilation will pose a
huge problem.

People who live on the other side of the
Rohtang Pass say the tunnel will transform their lives.

“For six months, we are prisoners,” said
Chetan Devi, a schoolteacher who lives in a town beyond the pass. “In the
winter, you have to risk your life to go to Manali.”
The tunnel will turn an ordeal of several hours, even in the summer, into a
brisk 20-minute trip.

Virender Sharma, the chief government
official in Kyelang, the main town of the Lahaul Valley, which sits between
Manali and Ladakh, said that last winter 21 people died trying to cross the
Rohtang Pass on foot. People were found frozen solid, he said, “sitting with
rucksacks on their backs, water bottles at their sides, but they were dead.”
Winters in the Lahaul Valley are a miserable affair, he said.

“During summer, it seems very pleasant,”
Sharma said. “In the winter, there is no light. No vegetables. No mail. Nothing
to do in the evening. If there is an emergency, you are practically at the
mercy of God.”

For the engineers building the tunnel, it
is not merely a matter of logistics, but also a matter of national pride.

“Once this tunnel is complete, it will be
an engineering marvel for the whole nation,” Mahajan said.