Patnitop Tamed

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The 9.2 km long ChenaniNashri tunnel will cut travel time between Srinagar and Jammu by two hours bypassing major hiccups like Patnitop and Batote towns. Aakash Hassan takes a quick pre-inauguration tour to gauge the mood on the highway   

It is one hell of a bumpy ride as one crosses the six decade old 2.85 kilometer long Jawahar Tunnel, connecting Srinagar with Jammu. One wishes a quick end to the journey as vehicles desperately try to negotiate the potholes. But as one reaches Patnitop, one of the major highway hill stations, the journey forward is a breather now. Reason: a 9.2 kilometer long newly constructed Chenani-Nashri Tunnel that pierces through the belly of the lower Himalayas between Nashri (Ramban district) and Chenani (Udhampur district).

As vehicles enter a multi-storey like gate of the tunnel, bright gradient lights illuminate the 13 meter diameter main tube.

Located at an altitude of 200 metres (nearly 4,000 feet), the tunnel is built at a whooping cost of Rs 3,720 crore in five and a half years by Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) Ltd.

Once fully functional the tunnel will reduce travel time between Jammu and Srinagar by about 2 hours by shortening the distance by 30 km.

The tunnel comprising of two tubes: one main tube (13 meters in diameter) is meant for traffic and another (6 meter diameter), is reserved for emergency and maintenance purposes. Both the tubes are connected by 29 cross passages, located at the regular intervals.

Hailed as the first road tunnel with Transverse Ventilation Systems, the tunnel is fitted with inlets for fetching fresh air into the main tube after every eight meters. For exhaust, the tunnel has ventilators installed after every 100 meters inside escape tube. “The fresh air enters into the main tunnel and the escape tube, running parallel, will suck the exhaust air out,” said Vijay Sharma, an official.

Besides, the tunnel is fully equipped with modern gadgets for smooth traffic flow. “There are 124 cameras and a linear heat detection system installed inside the tunnel to alert the Integrated Tunnel Control Room (ITCR) located outside the tunnel in case of an emergency,” said Sharma.

In case of an emergency, the automated system fitted inside the tunnel, will alert the help services like cranes, ambulances firefighters etc. stationed just outside the tunnel.

Just in case the automated system fails the tunnel has SOS boxes installed after every 150 meters. “These boxes are connected to the emergency hotlines,” said Sharma.

“These SOS boxes also contain first-aid kits and fire extinguishers.”

Unlike other tunnels, one can use mobile phone without worrying about the connectivity issues.

In case of a fire sophisticated sensor mechanism is put in place to tackle the situation. “If there is a fire, the automated system will stop inflow of fresh air and, rather will function as exhausts. This will help in controlling the spread of fire,” the official said.

Despite passing through water rich mountains the tunnel is completely waterproof. “There will be no seepage of water from the ceilings or any of the walls of the tunnels.”

The tunnel is also embedded with gravitational drainage system. “In the middle the surface level is slightly higher than the edges that enable water to drain from the road automatically,” said Sharma.

As per the estimates made by Infrastructure IL&FS, fuel worth Rs 27 lakh a day will be saved by the distance shortened due to tunnel.

The tunnel will completely bypass famous tourist destinations like Patnitop, Kud and Batote. “It will save ecologically sensitive forests in Patnitop,” claimed the official.

But that is not all. The construction of the tunnel has threatened the livelihood of shopkeepers, especially the famous sweet shops of Kud. “We have to shut our shops as nobody will stop here anymore,” said a shopkeeper.

The market in Kud shot to fame since opening of Pream Sweets in 1925 by late Pream Lok Nath. Since then Kud has become a famous stopover for almost all vehicles travelling to or from Kashmir. It generated lots of income for the sweet shop owner, now almost two dozen in numbers.

“We were told that shops will be constructed for us inside the new tunnel,” said M Khajuriya, grandson of Pream Lok Nath, and current owner of Pream Sweets.

The impact of the tunnel can be gauged by the fact that during trial runs Kud lost ninety percent of the business. “We had to sack almost half of our workforce,” said a sweet shop owner.

In order to stay relevant to the changing geography most of the sweet shop owners have shifted to nearby Sarmuli area. “We are living like nomads,” said Khajuriya, who claims to pay Rs 25 lakh tax annually.

But there is a ray of hope for sweet shop owners as authorities have decided to allow only a certain vehicles to pass through the tunnel.

Constructed by New Australian Tunneling Technology Method (NATM), no vehicle carrying flammable substance, like petroleum and gas will be allowed to pass through tunnel. Two wheelers and vehicles exceeding more than five meters of height will also be barred, including the vehicles carrying poultry and livestock.

 “We are not going to compromise with the security at any level so these potentially hazardous substances will not be allowed,” said Sharma, who heads maintenance department.

Interestingly, the tunnel has already missed a deadline, May 2016, because of a billing dispute with IL&FS. To keep the show going, National Highway Authorities of India then roped in a Srinagar based company to finish the remaining work.

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