Over two dozen small and scattered villages high up in the Himalayan slopes have been cut off from the rest of the country since December after the closure of roads linking this Himachal Pradesh resort with the landlocked Lahaul Valley.The inhabitants, mainly Buddhists, have been subsisting on potatoes and meat for all these months. They are desperately awaiting restoration of the road links as the stored rations are running short.Snow-clearing operation on the highway between Manali and Keylong, the headquarters of the Lahaul-Spiti district, is likely to end by May 15, Col K.P. Rajendra Kumar, commander of the 38 Task Force of the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF), told IANS.GREF, a wing of the Border Roads Organisation that maintains the highway, is based here.
The 115-km highway passes through snow-marooned Rohtang Pass, located at 3,978 metres in the Pir Panjal mountain range, 51 km from here."We have reached close to Rohtang Pass. Our teams are working round the clock to clear the snow on both sides of the pass," Col Kumar said.GREF launched the snow-clearing operation on March 19.Officials said a major portion of the 20-km stretch between Rani Nullah and Gramphoo via Rohtang Pass was still under a heavy blanket of snow and it would take at least two more weeks to reopen it. The rest of the highway was almost ready for traffic.Residents of Lahaul Valley, with a population of over 20,000, eagerly await the resumption of road traffic.
"We have been holed up since December. We are desperately awaiting restoration of road links," Tara Chand of Sissu village told IANS over telephone.He said they had been surviving for the last four months on locally grown potatoes and cabbage.
"We are looking for fresh fruits and vegetables. With the thawing of snow, a few chicken traders have started reaching here after crossing icy tracks of Rohtang Pass on foot. But the prices are exorbitantly high," Chand added.Government-run helicopter is the only mode of transport for the locals when the Rohtang Pass is closed for traffic. Those travelling out of the area are usually the sick and the elderly.
School teacher B.D. Negi, who is based in Keylong, said: "My family seasonally migrates to Kullu town before the onset of snowfall. Now they want to come back and expect timely restoration of road links."Every year after winter, GREF opens the Manali-Keylong highway by deploying more than 250 labourers.There was record snowfall in the region in the past winter. Even its spell got extended. The snow-clearing operation was challenging this time, said a GREF official who wished not to be named."Some stretch near Rohtang is still under more than 80 feet of snow. We have to chip through the snow to make the way for the road," he added.
With the help of global positioning system, engineers locate the road beneath the hill of the snow. After a bulldozer clears off the major snow, labourers manually clear the remaining snow with shovels.The Manali-Keylong highway is also strategically important as it further connects to the forward areas of Jammu and Kashmir's Ladakh region along the borders with China and Pakistan.The Lahaul Valley is populated mainly by tribals. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land forms part of a cold desert where the mercury drops below minus 20 degrees Celsius during winter.