Defence minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday virtually conducted the final breakthrough blast of the Sela tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh and flagged of a 20,000-km-long motorcycle expedition of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).
Rajnath participated in the virtual breakthrough blast and the flagging-off at the National War Memorial in New Delhi.
Rajnath said the Sela tunnel will be the world's largest bi-lane tunnel at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet. He also lauded the work done by the BRO while handling this project.
The tunnel will not only strengthen national security but also augment the transportation facilities for the local people and consequently, boost their socio-economic conditions, he said.
"The breakthrough blast of the Sela main tunnel shows your (BRO's) hard work and your commitment towards the country's security and socio-economic development," the defence minister said.
"This tunnel, which has been made with state-of-the-art features, will prove to be the lifeline for not just Tawang, but the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh," Singh said.
He also flagged off a motorcycle expedition of the BRO.
Singh said 75 personnel of the BRO and the Indian Army will participate in the motorcycle expedition that will cover a distance of 20,000 km passing through many states and Union territories.
But what is the Sela tunnel? And why is it important? Let's take a closer look:
What's the Sela tunnel?
In the 2018-19 budget, former Union finance minister Arun Jaitley had announced Project Vartakt under which BRO planned to build tunnels through Sela Pass to make the Tibet border more accessible for tourists and troops. On 9 February, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Sela Tunnel.
According to a PIB report, the construction of the tunnel started on 1 April that year, with the first blast taking place on 31 October, 2019.
"The excavation pace of Sela Tunnel has been swift as it has resulted in the breaking down of the escape tube of the 1,555 meters tunnel on 22 July, 2021, much ahead of schedule. Despite COVID-19 restrictions and adverse weather conditions, the pace of works has increased in the last 6-10 months," the report states.
The tunnels are located at an elevation of 13,700 feet, which will ensure a faster movement of troops in Tawang, a strategically important district bordering China.
At the time, the project included the construction of two tunnels, a single tunnel of length 980 metres and a twin-tube tunnel 1,555 metres, through Sela-Chabrela ridge meeting the existing Balipara-Chaudur-Tawang road on Nurarang side.
The project also included widening of existing single lane road to double lane specifications from Baisaki and then taking off a greenfield alignment (a greenfield road is built in an area that has never been developed) of length 12.37 kilometres.
Why is this important?
The tunnel has great strategic, financial, and emotional value for India.
Since then, it was in line with India's bid for faster access to the Tibet frontier through the tough terrain of the state in the Eastern Himalayas.
During the 1962 war, China's invasion of India progressed swiftly after Sela was overrun by the People's Liberation Army. Since then it has been India's priority to ensure proper border infrastructure for faster access to the Tibet frontier through the tough terrain of the state in the Eastern Himalayas.
Previously, the only thing connecting the hinterlands to the border areas of Tibet and China was the extremely arduous Balipara-Chardwar Tawang Road or BCT.
In fact, one of the most challenging parts of the BCT highway, as it travels through the steep Himalayan mountains, is the Sela Pass at over 13,700 feet. Sela pass receives heavy snowfall during winters, sometimes so intense that the roads get blocked for days cutting off access to Tawang and other border areas of India.
The newly-built tunnel will cut down the travel time between the army's 4 Corps headquarters at Tezpur in Assam and Tawang by at least an hour. The tunnel goes through Sela Pass and is expected to cut down the distance to the China border through Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh by 10 kilometres. The construction work of the tunnel is expected to be over by June 2022.
Moreover, it would ensure that National Highway 13, especially the 171-km stretch between Bomdila and Tawang, remains accessible in all weather conditions.
Commute through the Sela tunnel will prove to be a boon for the people of Tawang since it will reduce travel time and ensure speedier movement across the Sela Pass. It is expected to play a crucial role in the development of not just Arunachal Pradesh, but the entire North-East by enhancing connectivity and making it more accessible.
In a recent interview to ANI, DG BRO Lt Gen Rajeev Chaudhary said, "It (Sela Tunnel) will not only strengthen security but also connect far-flung areas, making it feasible for the people of West Arunachal to commute. It'll increase tourism & improve the economy; completion expected by June/July or August next year."