The Malayali behind the marvel called Atal tunnel

The Malayali behind the marvel called Atal tunnel
India now boasts of the highest altitude tunnel in the world, the Atal tunnel, and the man who made the ambitious project a reality happens to be a Malayali — Border Roads Organisation Chief Engineer KP Purushothaman from Echoor in Kannur.

He is a man who has not had time to talk even on the phone with his wife and children. He has been quite busy for a few years now as he had to sweat it out for the country day and night in a crucial project for India and its people, and especially for the Army. 

India now boasts of the highest altitude tunnel in the world, the Atal tunnel, and the man who made the ambitious project a reality happens to be a Malayali — Border Roads Organisation Chief Engineer KP Purushothaman from Echoor in Kannur. The tunnel was inaugurated on Saturday morning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Fresh from the highs of a historical achievement, Purushothaman shares with Manorama Online the difficulties that were faced during the 10 years that were required to build the tunnel and its unique features.

“It is a 9.02 km-long tunnel dug in the mountains at an altitude of 3,000 metres, or 10,000 feet, above sea level. This is what makes the Atal tunnel different. At this height, this is the longest and hardest tunnel in the world. The tunnel at the Pir Panjal Range in the Himalayas has been completed by providing all modern security systems and features that are available today.”

A dangerous mission

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The construction of tunnels is extremely dangerous, Purushothaman said. Although the building of a tunnel starts only on the basis of the general understanding of the geography of the place and studies done on it, one should expect danger at every step of the construction.

The job involves ripping open the earth. As such, no matter how many safety precautions are taken, natural disasters can never be ruled out and they can come in many forms, which could result in even loss of life, he said. There were many hurdles we faced — from landslides and mudslides to rocks flying around after explosions. This complex mission was completed by overcoming all such obstructions, he said.

According to Purushothaman, this is not the achievement of just one person. "It is the success of great cooperation and dedication," he said. The tunnel connects Manali in Himachal Pradesh with Lahaul-Spiti. It will also offer connections to Ladakh and Leh under any weather conditions. 

Purushothaman said that work on the tunnel began from both sides at the same time. The two sides are called the South Portal and the North Portal. The Rohtang Pass is closed during the winter as it is not possible to travel in the snow. So, work on the North Portal couldn’t be carried out for months together.

During the winter, excavations were carried out only on the South Portal. Three-quarters of the total route was built through the South Portal. Only one-fourth of the work was completed from the North Portal as the weather created a problem. 

There were also about 50 snowy areas on routes providing access to the tunnel’s path. "Continuous work at such heights can affect health. The shift and workers for the task were finalised with this in mind. I had completed a first term in the project. A few years after the first term, I was given a second assignment," Purushothaman said.

Even minus 30 degrees didn't deter team

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It was snowing on the North and South portals when construction of the tunnel began. "Since we couldn’t reach the North Portal, we started working at the South Portal," he said. 

In the North Portal, work could be carried out for only six months. "We also had to ensure that workers are evacuated before it starts snowing and road traffic gets affected," he said. 

"The temperature could fall to as low as minus 30 degrees. But that didn’t mean our team would stop working. We faced many obstacles, including the fact that concreting would not be smooth in the cold," Purushothaman said.

The construction of the tunnel began in 2010. "The plan was to complete it within six years, but it was only after we started the project did we realise the magnitude of the task and the difficulties we would face. To begin with, there is a river that flows through the top of the tunnel," he said.

"After digging the tunnel for 1.87 km, when we did an explosion to continue the work, there was an unexpected mudslide on a large scale. Since the soil was weak, it was sliding towards the face of the tunnel. This happened about 25 times," Purushothaman said. But no one was harmed because they had had taken sufficient precaution and also because luck was on their side, he said. "Once during lunch, a part of the tunnel collapsed. The only reason it did not instil fear in people was because there was no one at the place then," he said. 

Tunnel projects have been abandoned due to such difficult conditions. A tunnel that was started in 2006 in Himachal Pradesh is yet to be completed, Purushothaman pointed out. 

"At every stage, we proceeded with caution and with adequate safety measures as the tunnel project required extreme care. The only delay was because of this. When things would become extremely difficult, contractors would say they are giving up. However, the problems were overcome as the government and the department promised full cooperation and support," he said.

Purushothaman said it took four years to complete work on a 600-meter stretch known as shear zone. Such zones are extremely dangerous as they are prone to landslides and soil erosion. "This is the first time in the world that a tunnel passing through a shear zone that stretches continuously for a distance of 600 metres has been completed," he said. 

The construction was based on the New Austrian tunnel method. Removing the tonnes of rock and soil that were being excavated and stopping the flow of water were big challenges. "There were days when work could progress only for about five metres. There have also been occasions when work was limited to just half-a-metre because of severe obstructions," he said.

Even Covid could not stop the work

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The work on the tunnel continued 24 hours a day in three shifts without breaks. It was a huge mission with 3,000 workers, 770 engineers, supervisors, consultants and contractors working at the same time. 

"But with the outbreak of the Covid epidemic, we had to close the workplace. There was also a shortage of workers," Purushothaman said. "I had told all those who called me that the project would be completed by September. However, amid Covid, many worried if that would be possible."

But work resumed after the team got special government permits and concessions. The camps where workers stayed were made completely safe by adhering to the Covid guidelines. Not a single Covid case was reported at the site, he said. 

“The project was completed on time. The tunnel project, which was estimated to cost Rs 4,083 crore, was completed for just Rs 3,200 crore. More than Rs 800 crore was saved,” Purushothaman said. 

Kannur’s pride

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Purushothaman went to Delhi after completing his polytechnic in Kannur and graduated in civil engineering. He also holds a PG Diploma and MBA in construction management. 

He passed the UPSC exam in 1987 and joined the Border Roads Organisation. His first assignment was at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as assistant executive engineer. He later worked in Nagaland, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He was also a part of many important  road projects on the China, Pakistan borders.

He served in Kerala on deputation for two years from 2015 to 2017. In 2019, he was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal in recognition of his services. 

Purushothaman is the son of Kelampeth Kannan, who was the vice-president of Munderi panchayat, and Kunniparambil Yashoda. His wife Sindhu is from Thalassery. His son Varun is training for a PG course after completing his MBBS, while daughter Yuvika is in the US for higher studies after completing her engineering degree. 

Purushottam's wife Sindhu describes him as a calm person who takes little rest, does not get tired no matter how much work he does, and who considers each challenge as an opportunity.

The last word on tunnel safety

The tunnel named after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has got many specialities. About 12,252 metric tonnes of steel, 1,69,426 metric tonnes of cement and 1,01,336 metric tonnes of concrete were used to construct it. About 5,05,264 metric tonnes of rock and soil were excavated during the tunnel’s construction. 

Usually, the safety tunnel is built parallel to the tunnel. But in the case of the Atal tunnel, the rescue tunnel is built below it.

It is a horseshoe-shaped, single-tube, double-lane tunnel. The roadway is eight metres long. It has an overhead clearance of 5.525 metres. Three thousand cars and 1,500 trucks can travel through the tunnel daily at a speed of 80 km per hour. 

It has state-of-the-art electromechanical facilities, including semi-reverse ventilation system, supervisory control and data Acquisition (SCADA) system, controlled firefighting, lighting and monitoring systems.

There is a telephone facility every 150 metres, a fire hydrant every 60 metres, an emergency exit every 500 meters, air quality monitoring system every kilometre, and an automatic detection system with CCTV cameras every 250 metres to detect and broadcast events.

Benefits for both people and Army

The tunnel, which facilitates military operations and tourism, will reduce the distance between Manali and Leh by 46 km. The journey from Manali to Lahaul and Spiti Valley currently takes about five hours. The tunnel will reduce the time to 10 minutes. 

The tunnel will offer all-weather connectivity to residents of Lahaul and Spiti Valley, which till now have remained isolated from other parts of the country for six months due to heavy snowfall. The tunnel will enable troops who have been stationed in Ladakh to face the threat of China, to travel in any weather

In winter, the hinterlands of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, a strategic region in Kashmir, are completely cut off from the outside world. The snowfall makes transportation in the region difficult for about six months. With the inauguration of the tunnel, transportation, including for military purposes, will be possible throughout the year. The tunnel is also crucial to strengthen India's military presence in the Ladakh region. The need for such a tunnel became clear to the Ministry of Defence during the Kargil war.

There are two ways to deliver food, weapons and other supplies to the Indian Army in Ladakh. One way is to send them from Pathankot in Punjab via Jammu, Srinagar, Zoji La and Kargil (National Highway - 1A). It was this road that Pakistan had targeted and bombed during the 1999 Kargil war. 

The second route is to reach Leh in Ladakh via Rohtang and Kullu and Manali in Himachal Pradesh. But both these roads are covered in snow from November to about May. The decision to build the tunnel at Rohtang was taken to overcome this problem. After the Kargil war, it became clear that such a tunnel was essential for  the security of Ladakh.

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