AFTER the Partition, my father shifted from Lahore to Shimla. Not used to the bone-chilling winter, we would go for a month or two to a place at a lower altitude. In those days, the most convenient way to travel to Delhi and other areas in the plains was a small-gauge toy train, which would chug along the mountainous terrain, covering 60 miles up to the Kalka junction in about seven hours.
Apart from the lush-green landscape and deep gorges along the route, what made the journey exhilarating and memorable were the 103 tunnels and 25 picturesque stations. The longest tunnel was the Barog tunnel — almost one mile long — and the train would take 7-10 minutes to come out from the other end. This tunnel was named after British engineer Col Barog. It is said that Barog started digging the tunnel from two sides of the mountain, but because of a mistake in his calculations, the two ends did not meet. He was fined; unable to bear the humiliation, he died by suicide.
It must have been a Herculean task to dig such a long tunnel almost 120 years ago, when road cutters and payloaders had not surfaced. Considering that grooving tunnels in hilly and rocky terrain was not an easy job, I would often wonder why the British built over 100 of them on a 60-mile route instead of opting for road construction.
I received the answer when I got admission in an engineering college. What my professor, who was heading the civil engineering department, said could be a lesson for all those who follow a development model that overlooks the loss to environment and ecology. His opinion was that the British preferred tunnels to open roads because they cared for ecology.
Roads are built after cutting trees as well as rocks and disturbing the natural soil layers. Besides, such roads lead to an increase in habitations due to the proliferation of hotels and resorts, which entails cutting of more trees. In contrast, a tunnel can be dug without denuding forests. Even after the construction of a tunnel, the villages/habitats remain intact. The best examples are of the Koti and Barog tunnels. Barog village rests over the Barog tunnel. He also told us that Himachal Pradesh had fragile and unstable soil. There was a limit to which it could bear human activities. Till 1970, when most of the roads were single-lane, there were no landslides despite heavy rain.
It appears that before undertaking the four-laning project of the Kalka-Shimla highway, this important issue was either not discussed thoroughly or was swept under the carpet for commercial reasons. Now, when Himachal and Uttarakhand have experienced devastation in the form of landslides and sinking of roads, I hope our engineers and planners — who at one time considered the tunnel an outdated concept — have begun to realise that it is the right choice in our hill terrain.
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