Official sources say it will also face a cost overrun of Rs 500-600 crore. The Rs 1, 495-crore (USD 290 million) Rohtang tunnel's foundation stone was laid by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi June 28, 2010, in the picturesque Solang Valley near here.

"The project is delayed owing to tough climatic conditions and geological surprises coming one after another," an official, who is associated with the project execution, said.

He said the Defence Ministry project is currently facing high water seepage and loose strata towards Dhundi, 25 km from here and is likely to be completed by 2017.

Official sources said so far 4,100 metres have been dug up out of the 8.8-km-long horseshoe shaped tunnel, being built under the 3,978 m Rohtang Pass in the Himalayas. Digging is the most challenging assignment in tunnel construction.

"Till date Rs.830 crore has been spent. As per estimates, it will now cost more than Rs 2,000 crore," said the official.

National Commission for Scheduled Tribes vice chairperson Ravi Thakur, who inspected the construction work March 7, said the project execution has been going on at a slow pace.

Thakur, who is also a legislator, said he has apprised Defence Minister A.K. Antony about the abnormal delay in its execution.

The project is being built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an organisation under the defence ministry, in collaboration with Strabag-Afcons, a joint venture between India's Afcons Infrastructure Ltd and Strabag SE of Austria.

"The reason for the delay cited by the officials concerned is inclement weather and heavy snowfall in winter. However, this kind of weather was prevalent in the area when the work was awarded and this would have been taken into account while the target date was fixed," Thakur said in a recent missive to Antony.

Work on the north portal that lies towards the Lahaul Valley has been stopped since December because of massive snowfall in the area. But work on the south portal towards Dhundi is on.

According to a BRO official, some areas along the Rohtang tunnel's south portal are under eight to 10 feet of snow and the minimum temperature is around minus 20 degrees Celsius.

In October last year, the construction work was partially suspended after a portion of the tunnel rooftop collapsed on the south portal.

There was no loss of life. The Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the Rohtang tunnel project in September 2009.

On completion, the tunnel will be a boon for the cold deserts of Lahaul Valley, where over 20,000 people remain cut off from the rest of the country in winters owing to the closure of the Rohtang Pass.

The tunnel, with a horseshoe shaped cross-section, will be 11.25 m wide at road level, providing ample room for two-way traffic, and is designed to cater to a maximum vehicular speed of 80 km/hr.

But the Rohtang tunnel alone might not be enough to make the Manali-Keylong-Leh highway an all-weather road. There are two other major snowbound passes along the way - Baralacha La and Thaglang La.

To overcome this, the project envisages constructing a 292-km-long all-weather road, Nimu-Padam-Darcha, via Shinkunla Pass, traversing the remote Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir, estimated to cost an additional Rs 286 crore.

BRO's deputy director general Brig V.S. Kattarya, in a communication to Thakur last month, said the construction of Nimu-Padam-Darcha via Shinkunla Pass has been on at various stretches.

"So far 120 km road has been completed in stretches," he said.

(Agencies)

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