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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

India Digs Under Top of the World to Match Rival

August 4, 2010

By LYDIA POLGREEN
The New York Times
July 31, 2010

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 reaches.

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
five miles 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 defenses 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 2,521-mile 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 16,000 feet — 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," Ms. 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 naïve.”

Three hundred miles 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 20,000 feet.

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,"
Brigadier 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," Mr. 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," Mr. 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: a foot of snow. In June.

The tunnel will sit beneath more than a mile 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," Mr.
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," Mr. Mahajan said.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
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