The gateway to Chenab Valley

Rajinder Singh Rana
Time flies so fast but memories never fade. The visitors thronging Chenab valley or Kashmir via Patnitop while reaching  Chenani had never thought that one is sure to enter other side of elevated hilltop only in 10 to 15 minutes someday. In fact, it was like a dream.
The dream turned into reality on April 2nd this year when 9.2 km long Chenani-Nashri tunnel got completed and officially thrown open for vehicular movement. I think, on that day the visitors certainly must have  heaved a sigh relief who otherwise had to face hard and challenging drive through existing national highway which usually gets closed at Patnitop due to rains or snow falls in winters.
Located in lower Himalayas amid forest ridge of pine trees, the horse shoe-shaped Chenani-Nashri tunnel has been excavated approximately at 1200 meter sea level height. For such remotest villages of district Udhampur and Ramban, this State-of-the-art world class tunnel is rare of its kind. It happens to be India’s first tunnel with transverse ventilation system and Asia’s first and longest bi-directional highway tunnel.
The tunnel will become part of ongoing four lane widening Udhampur-Banihal four lane project progressing in two sections ie from Udhampur to Chenani and Nashri to Banihal. From Udhampur district headquarter, the tunnel is located at a distance of 25 Km and from Ramban only 23 Km.
Initially, the construction work of tunnel  was started in 2011 by foreign multi-national Leighton Contractors Pvt. Ltd which was followed by Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) company. At first, lot of challenges and hard ships were faced by construction agency owing to uneven climatic conditions and perplex topography of the region, but finally succeeded in culmination of this historic tunnel in April 2017.
The tunnel has not only provided all weather connectivity to the commuters but also reduced a total of 30 km tough distance. There is a fuel savings of  around 27 lakhs daily.  Earlier, there had been heavy traffic snarls and congestion from Chenani to Patnitop and then upto Batote. The stranded vehicles sometimes led the travelers to wait even for a day or more too thereby putting them in acute trouble and at risk.
After completion and functioning of this historic tunnel, commuters  enjoy a novel experience of driving. As we arrive at Chenani, two options open up —- either to go through existing route or via tunnel. One can hardly find traffic jams today from Nashri to Patnitop or Chenani to Patnitop. Both the routes have become easy and comfortable for drive.
Completed at a cost of 3720 crore, this engineering marvel has been constructed by over 1500 engineers, geologists, skilled workers and labourers. This mega development project has given employment to over 2000 skilled, semiskilled and un-skilled youth of Jammu and Kashmir. Some engineers of J&K are still working in the operation and functioning of the project.
Apart from economic potential the tunnel has also added to the infrastructural development of J&K state besides broadening the scope of tourism. Tourists visiting  Patnitop or Sanasar need not face any travel discomfort. One can easily travel to reach the tourist spots of Sanasar, Patnitop, Nathatop etc.
The tunnel has also brought Chenab valley very close to the Udhampur district socially, culturally and geographically as the people have easy access to both sides.
As far as construction design of the tunnel is concerned, the engineers have made every effort. The tunnel is equipped with world-class security system. It is a single-tube bi-directional tunnel with a 9.35 meter carriageway and a vertical clearance of 5 meters. There is also a parallel escape tunnel with cross passages connecting to the main tunnel at intervals of 300 meters.
Other smart features of the tunnel include integrated traffic control system, surveillance, power supply system, ventilation and broadcast system, fire fighting system and SOS call boxes at every 150 meters. Everything inside the tunnel has been sophistically designed and well engineered.
The 92.7 FM is mandatory for vehicles where emergency messages will be relayed. A total of 124 CCTVs one each at 75 meters have been fitted plus 6000 LED multiple colored lights. To keep check on carbon monoxide and opacity, air quality monitors at every 600 meters have also been installed. To record the distance inside tunnel, small boards and sinages can also be noticed.
While driving inside the tunnel, the vehicles have to keep speed limit of 50 km/hour or below. Oil tankers, gas tankers and some other specified vehicles are not permitted to pass through it owing to safety concerns. There are two toll collection centers one each at Chenani and Nashri. The two sided toll collection has been proposed to ensure the free flow of traffic through tunnel.
At toll collections, the light motor vehicles have to pay Rs. 55 and Rs. 85 for one and two way trips respectively while as the rates for Mini buses are Rs 90 for one way and Rs 135 for two way. Likewise, heavy vehicles like buses and trucks will pay Rs. 190 and Rs. 285 for one and two way journeys. The commuters can also avail monthly pass of Rs. 1870.
In winters, the tunnel  experiences snow falls on both sides and its adjoining areas. At this time one is stunned to overlook such catchy and magnificent views of nature resulted out of vast snow cover.
Driving through this windowless tunnel for 10 minutes can be a bit monotonous but not hectic. The internal design of the tunnel has been engineered and beautified in such a way that no one can divert its attention from the artificial views that keep visitors active and alert till reaching other end of tunnel.
Just close to Chenani-Nashri tunnel, we can also enjoy pure and natural eateries on both sides. The Simroli is popular for supplying Namkeen Chai and Satu (cooked maize flour) and Kaladi Kulcha. One cannot skip the taste of Pateesa of Prem Sweet Shop prepared locally in desi ghee. On other side of tunnel towards Ramban, the taste of Rajma Chawal along with Chatni of Anar Dana at Peera turns mouth watery. These dishes bring the strangers very close to centuries’ old local culture of this area.
(The writer is serving as District Information Officer Reasi and Ramban)