Caution: Men at work on snow-snapped Himachal highway (With Images)

April 26th, 2011 - 11:25 am ICT by IANS  

Manali, April 26 (IANS) Clad in bulky uniforms and armed with shovels, men of the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) are this year finding it hard to clear the 222-km long Manali-Rohtang-Sarchu highway which has been closed since December owing to heavy snowfall.

“Some of the areas along the Rohtang Pass are under 45-50 feet of snow. Normally, these areas experience 15-20 feet of snow. As per our records, this was the heaviest snowfall in the past 30 years,” A.K. Dikshit, commander of the 38 Task Force of the GREF, told IANS.

GREF is a wing of the Border Roads Organisation that maintains the highway that passes through rugged Himalayan ranges.

Every year after winter, GREF opens the highway by deploying more than 250 labourers. The highway is strategically important to maintain supplies for the armed forces posted in the forward areas of Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region along the borders with China and Pakistan.

Last year, the highway was made motorable on April 14, but this time, as Dikshit said, it can be operational by only the second week of May.

“The area is still snowing. On normal occasions, we take one day to clear a one-kilometre stretch. But this year, we are taking double the time,” he said.

Teams have been deployed on both sides of the Rohtang Pass, located 52 km from Manali, and the gateway to the Lahaul Valley.

“The most crucial and toughest stretch is Rohtang Pass, clearing which is quite difficult as the terrain is inhospitable. A sudden drop in the temperature, even in summer, can trigger winter-like conditions. Even oxygen is quite minimal and high velocity winds blow every afternoon,” Dikshit said.

GREF commanding officer Praveen Yernurkar, who is supervising the work, said the Rohtang Pass is experiencing harsh weather even now. “The morning and evening temperatures are around minus 12 degrees Celsius these days. Working in such conditions is quite hard.”

Each labourer has been provided a special uniform which weighs around five kilograms and the weight of a pair of shoes is two kg. Anti-glare sunglasses and gloves are also provided to them. A team of doctors normally accompanies them for handling any exigency.

With the help of global positioning system (GPS), the engineers locate the road beneath the hill of the snow. After the bulldozer clears the major snow, then labourers pitch in with their efforts to clear the remaining snow with shovels.

“The remaining five to six feet snow layer on the road is cleared manually as the bulldozer can damage the road,” Yernurkar said.

From the Manali side, the road has been cleared till Marhi, some 35 km from here.

Mohan Chand, a resident of Sissu village in Lahaul Valley, said: “We are desperately looking for the reopening of the highway.”

The government-run helicopter is the only mode of transportation for the villagers of Lahaul Valley, comprising more than two dozen small, scattered villages.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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