It takes eight to nine hours now to reach Manali from Chandigarh. During the peak tourist season (May-June), it can take an additional two hours. The gruelling journey is a dampener despite the pull of the tourist destinations of Kullu and Manali. The four-laning project, underway since 2013, promises to reduce the travel time to five-six hours. The scheduled opening of the entire stretch has again been delayed, till March next year now, but a more comfortable and hassle-free travel experience awaits commuters from next month itself.
The Kiratpur-Manali highway revised deadlines
Kiratpur-Nerchowk: June 30, 2023
Nerchowk- Pandoh: December 31, 2023
Pandoh-Takoli: March 31, 2024
The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) is executing the four-laning project that will shorten the distance from Kiratpur, which lies on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, to Manali from 232 km to 195 km. According to the NHAI, the project will reduce the travel time between Kiratpur and Manali by nearly three hours.
The pace of work on the Kiratpur-Nerchowk stretch has been intensified owing to pressure from the tourism stakeholders of Mandi, Kullu and Lahaul and Spiti. This will reduce the distance between Kiratpur and Nerchowk in Mandi by 30 km and the overall travel time on this stretch will come down by nearly two hours. The earlier inauguration deadline of mid-May, announced by Union Minister Anurag Thakur, has been extended by a month. The NHAI proposes to throw open the new route to the public in June.
The project is a greenfield alignment, and bypasses the route currently in use. The new stretch starts from Kanchimore village in Bilaspur district and ends at Bhawana village of Sundernagar in Mandi district on NH 21. Two bridges are under construction, which will provide an approach road to Tunnel-1 in Bilaspur district. Apart from this, work is close to completion in the five road tunnels, where electrification work is underway.
Some commuters have already started using the new stretch though it has not been officially opened. Kullu-based Anubhav Kaistha, who recently drove from Chandigarh, shares his experience. “The road is quite wide. Work was under progress at many places between Kiratpur and Nerchowk. Very few vehicles were plying on this route since it has not yet been opened officially. It took me less than five hours to reach Kullu,” he says.
At present, the 22-km-long stretch between Pandoh (18 km from Mandi) and Aut is the most treacherous, posing a lot of inconvenience to the commuters because of long traffic jams during the peak tourist season and landslide incidents during the rainy season. When the new four-lane stretch becomes fully operational, it will provide a huge relief to commuters.
The NHAI is planning to open 64 per cent of the stretch between Pandoh and Takoli, including five tunnels, in the first week of June. The Pandoh bypass to Takoli will reduce travel time from Mandi to Manali by an hour.
The delay in the completion of the four-laning project has escalated its cost from Rs 1,818 crore to Rs 6,000 crore.
The volume of traffic on the road can be gauged from the fact that in May last year, 45,000 vehicles, not registered in Himachal, entered Manali. The number went up to 71,800 in June, generating Rs 2.55 crore as green tax for these two months for the local municipal committee. The tourism industry is worried that the delay in the opening of the Kiratpur-Nerchowk road will affect business this year too, especially during the tourist season that has already started. The tourist flow decreases considerably in the rainy season that starts in July.
Pressure from industry
The tourism industry has been feeling the pinch of poor road connectivity for the past several years. Faced with severe connectivity issues in the absence of air and rail services, the ongoing work on the four-laning project has added to the woes of not just daily commuters, but also tourists thronging these Himachal hill stations. Though Kullu-Manali saw a massive tourist influx after two years of washout due to Covid-19, poor connectivity remained the bane of the tourism industry.
According to Anup Thakur, president of the Kullu-Manali Paryatan Vikas Mandal, the opening of the Kiratpur-Manali four-lane stretch would be a boon for the tourism industry. “Poor air and road connectivity are the biggest impediments to tourism promotion here as flights are erratic and ticket prices exorbitant. The only option is to travel by road and the journey can be arduous. Often, tourists are stuck in long traffic jams for hours. Once the new stretch is opened, tourists will not hesitate to travel by road. It’ll save everyone’s time and money,” he says.
A single multi-axle vehicle on this stretch shall economise the fuel consumption and wear and tear by 50 per cent, thus increasing efficiency. This will result in savings worth an estimated Rs 900-1,000 crore per annum in fuel and maintenance costs. It will also substantially reduce environmental pollution.
Work on the project between Kiratpur and Manali has been divided into five sections: Kiratpur-Nerchowk, Nerchowk-Pandoh, Pandoh-Takoli, Takoli-Kullu and Kullu-Manali. The NHAI has already missed its March deadline for completion of the entire project. It now hopes to complete it by March 2024. The major work pending is on the Pandoh-Takoli stretch.
Varun Chari, director of the Kiratpur-Manali four-laning project, says, “The project is expected to be completed by next March. Construction work on the Kiratpur-Nerchowk stretch is in its final stages and it is expected to be completed by June end. As soon as the construction is completed, it will be opened to public. Currently, work is underway on two road bridges and electrification is going on in five tunnels. We are working day and night to open it to traffic.”
Photos: Jai kumar
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