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Atal Tunnel – Features and Strategic Significance

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From Current Affairs Notes for UPSC » Editorials & In-depths » This topic

The tunnel connecting Manali to Leh under the Rohtang Pass in the eastern Pir-Panjal Range of the Himalayas on the Leh-Manali highway is now ready after 10 years, which is considered to be the world’s longest highway tunnel and is expected to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late September this year. The tunnel is at a height of over 10,000 feet (3000 meters). The 9.02-km-long tunnel is named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It took four more years than the original estimated time of less than 6 years to complete this strategic tunnel. The tunnel will reduce the distance between Manali and Leh of up to 46 kilometres and the travel time of up to 4 hours. Let’s make a detailed examination of the salient features and strategic significance of the Atal Tunnel in this context.


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This topic of “Atal Tunnel – Features and Strategic Significance” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is the genesis of the project?

  • For the First time, it was the Moravian Mission in 1960 talked about the possibility of a tunnel through the Rohtang Pass to reach Lahaul and later prime minister Nehru talked about a ropeway to Rohtang Pass.
  • The tunnel was then conceived in 1983 by the Indira Gandhi government to make the Manali-Leh road all-weather.
  • A feasibility study of the project Rohtang Tunnel was carried out in May 1990. But it was only in 2002, that the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government declared the construction of the tunnel and laid the foundation for the approach road to the tunnel.
  • The final technical approval for BRO was granted in 2003
  • The geological report based on the feasibility study was submitted in June 2004.
  • The Cabinet Committee on Security approved the project in 2005.
  • This was followed by a design and specification report, which was prepared and finalized in December 2006.
  • The tenders were floated in 2007.
  • The foundation stone was laid in July 2010.
  • The project was scheduled to be completed by February 2015 but it got delayed due to unexpected problems.
  • Then It was scheduled to be completed by May 2020, in a revised estimate, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the completion by a few months due to lockdown conditions.

Why Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

  • According to the government sources, the decision to construct a strategic tunnel below the Rohtang Pass was taken in June 2000 by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
  • Vajpayee was a regular visitor to Manali and took a keen interest in the project during his tenure.
  • The tunnel was named after former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in December 2019.

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Who constructed the tunnel?

  • It was constructed by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), India’s strategic infrastructure development agency.

What technology was used for the construction?

  • This is also the first tunnel to deploy the Rowa flyer technology, which allows engineers to work at inverted levels.

What were the major challenges faced by this tunnel project?

  • The tunnel project faced major challenges due to excessive snowfall. When the work picked up the pace near the south portal, water from the Seri drain and the mountain silt seemed relentless, severely complicating work.
  • Then technical arrangements were made to control silting by creating a separate route for the drainage water.

What is so special about the Atal Tunnel?

  • The 9.02 km-long tunnel now became the world’s longest highway tunnel at an altitude of above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).
  • It was originally designed to be 8.8 km long, but GPS readings taken on completion show it to be 9.02 km long.
  • It is a 10.5 m-wide single tube, a bi-lane tunnel with a fireproof emergency tunnel built into the main tunnel itself.
  • The 10.5-m width includes a 1-meter footpath on both sides.
  • Vehicles can travel at a maximum speed of 80 km per hour in the tunnel.
  • Up to 3,000 cars and 1,500 trucks are expected to use the tunnel every day.
  • The Atal Tunnel is not exactly under Rohtang pass, as it is slightly west of the pass.
  • Country’s first escape tunnel:
    • It is also the country’s first tunnel to have an escape tunnel within the main tunnel because of the topography.
    • This would provide an emergency exit in case of any untoward incident, which may render the main tunnel unusable.

What services will be available in the Rohtang Tunnel?

  • Telephone every 150 meters
  • Fire hydrant every 60 meters
  • Emergency exit every 500 meters
  • Turning cavern every 2.2. Km
  • Air Quality monitoring every 1 Km
  • Broadcasting system
  • Automatic incident detection system with CCTV every 250 meters

What are the benefits and strategic significance of the Rohtang tunnel?


·         Reducing the distance and time:

  • Cutting through the Pir Panjal range, the tunnel will reduce the distance between Manali and Leh by 46 km and the travel time of up to 4 hours.

·         Reducing the impact of natural disturbances:

  • The Rohtang Pass, to which the tunnel provides an alternate, is located at a height of 13,050 feet, and a journey from Manali Valley to Lahaul and Spiti Valley, which normally takes around five hours to negotiate, would now be completed in little over ten minutes.
  • While the tunnel will be a boon to the residents of the Lahaul and Spiti Valley who remain cut off from the rest of the country in winters for nearly six months due to heavy snowfall.

·         Employment Generation

  • It would give a boost to tourism activities in Lahaul-Spiti district besides creating employment and self-employment avenues in the area.

Strategic Significance

·         Defence considerations

  • The tunnel is extremely significant from the military logistics point of view.
  • The tunnel will provide almost all-weather connectivity to the troops stationed in Ladakh.
  • It is along one of the only two routes into Ladakh and will become key to resupplying military garrisons. Currently, the movement of armed forces in the forward areas in Ladakh from the Manali side is feasible only from June to mid-November.
  • At a time when India is facing border issues with China in Ladakh, the tunnel can be crucial in defending the country and will allow mobility of defence forces in case of a prolonged standoff.

Location of ATAL Tunnel

What is the cost associated with this project?

  • The cost of the project has crossed Rs 4,500 crore now.

What are the salient features of the Rohtang tunnel?

  • The unique features of this tunnel begin a fair distance away from it on the approach roads to the north and south portals.
  • Bridges in rivers on the approach to the tunnel from both the portals have also been completed and are now being painted.
  • Snow galleries have also been built on the approach road to the tunnel from Manali side, and this will ensure all-weather connectivity.
  • Other features include an emergency escape tunnel under the main tunnel. This would provide an emergency exit in case of any untoward incident which may render the main tunnel unusable.

Salient features of Rohtang Tunnel

Way forward

  • Though the tunnel will provide almost all-weather connectivity to the troops stationed in Ladakh and will be a boon to the residents of the Lahaul and Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh who remain cut off from the rest of the country in winters, for full all-weather connectivity, additional tunnels will have to be built on the Manali-Leh route so that the high passes on the axis do not impede movement due to snowfall.
  • A 13.2 km long tunnel will have to be built to negotiate the 16,040 feet high Baralacha pass and another 14.78 km long tunnel will be required at the Lachung La pass at 16,800 feet. A third 7.32 km long tunnel will be required at the Tanglang La pass at 17,480 feet.


  • The “strategic” Rohtang tunnel, christened as Atal Tunnel and connecting Manali to Leh will change the fortunes of the region and help promote tourism.
  • Once thrown open, the tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity to remote border areas of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh which otherwise remain cut off from the rest of the country for about six months during winters.

Practice Question for Mains

  1. Atal Tunnel: The Cloud In The Silver Lining. Comment (150 Words)
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Shikha Mankotia

Very nicely covered this topic 👍 but it is completed in rs. 3200 cr.
The initial estimation for completion of the tunnel was Rs 950 crores. The project, however, was completed at a cost of over Rs 3,200 crores, which is over three times the initial value.

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