Stranded at top

Rohtang Pass faces an uncertain future as Himachal Pradesh drags its feet over introducing a CNG transport system in the highly eco-sensitive area

By Shreeshan Venkatesh
Published: Monday 27 June 2016
Tourists wait for a ride on Rohtang Pass after the
National Green Tribunal limited the number of petrol
and diesel vehicles that can ply the eco-sensitive area (Photo: Aman Gupta)
Tourists wait for a ride on Rohtang Pass after the
National Green Tribunal limited the number of petrol
and diesel vehicles that can ply the eco-sensitive area (Photo: Aman Gupta) Tourists wait for a ride on Rohtang Pass after the National Green Tribunal limited the number of petrol and diesel vehicles that can ply the eco-sensitive area (Photo: Aman Gupta)

On May 10, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) eased curbs it had imposed on tourism activities in Rohtang Pass in the past two years, it brought relief to the local people. Over 80 per cent of those living in villages and valleys around the high mountain pass of Himachal Pradesh depend on tourism for a living. But a sense of uncertainty persists. The prime reason for this is the state’s failure to implement an NGT order that directs it to plan a transition to an eco-friendly transport system on the 51 km stretch, which connects important tourist destinations and is located at an elevation of 3,978 metres on the Himalayas.

The NGT directive is based on reports that say increasing footfall due to tourism has hastened melting of glaciers and snow capped mountains in the region. As an immediate measure to safeguard the fragile area, NGT in 2014 banned tourist activities like paragliding, snow scooter riding and all terrain vehicles, horse riding and renting of local traditional dresses for photography. A year later, it restricted the number of diesel and petrol vehicles entering the Pass to 1,000 a day, including 600 petrol and 400 diesel vehicles (see ‘Proceedings so far’).

  • Feb 6, 2014: Acting on a 2013 petition, NGT recognises the right to wholesome and decent environment as a right to life, and directs the Himachal Pradesh (HP) government to plan a transition to CNG and electric vehicles. NGT bans all commercial activities in and around Rohtang Pass to curb carbon emissions
  • March 27, 2014: The HP government says it has taken a policy decision to implement the orders
  • June 25, 2014: NGT finds that none of the orders has been implemented. The HP government assures that steps will be taken
  • Nov 20, 2014: Dissatisfied with the status of implementation, NGT issues ultimatum to the government
  • Jan 8, 2015: The HP government seeks more time for implementation
  • May 5, 2015: NGT restricts the number of tourist vehicles visiting Rohtang Pass to 1,000 a day, including 600 petrol and 400 diesel, on a first-come-first-serve basis for three months
  • July 6, 2015: NGT restricts tourist activities at Solang, Rohtang and Marhi
  • Aug 19, 2015: NGT extends vehicular restrictions until November 30
  • Dec 11, 2015: NGT clamps down further; allows only 500 petrol vehicles a day; bans plying of petrol vehicles older than 15 years
  • April 7, 2016: State submits progress report
  • May 10, 2016: NGT eases the ban on tourist activities in certain areas; allows to increase the total number of vehicles entering the region to 1,200—800 petrol and 400 diesel. The government says the cost of setting up CNG stations is unaffordable
  • May 25, 2016: GAIL & HP government submit a report on the feasibility of the CNG transition. It is yet to be made public

Estimates show around 7,000 vehicles used to ply the Pass in a day during the peak tourism season between June and August.

While the state is yet to introduce an eco-friendly transport system, on May 18 it asked NGT to lift all restrictions on tourism activities in Rohtang Pass.

Why the reluctance

As per the NGT order, the Himachal Pradesh government was to set up two CNG stations along the route—one at Tahliwal in Una district and the other in Manali district—and introduce CNG buses by May 2016. Once operational, these would be the world’s highest CNG transit system. But little has materialised so far. The state government is acquiring land for Tahliwal station, while Manali station has not moved beyond the planning stage.

The biggest hurdle is who will fund the transition and how. “No thought has gone into where the funds would come from in case assistance from the Centre does not materialise,” says Sanjay Gupta, additional secretary-in-charge of transport, Himachal Pradesh. The expected capital expenditure for the two CNG stations is Rs 17.5 crore.

In December 2015, the state said that it can afford only the cost of setting up the plants, and asked the NGT to arrange for a subsidy on the fuel. Later, it said that it cannot even afford setting up the CNG stations. To the state’s relief, the Centre has agreed to lend its support, provided the state government submits a business model. But the state is yet to submit one.

Feasibility of the green fuel and the stations is another concern the state has not assessed properly. The Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) which was asked by NGT to assess the costs of transition, says the costs can be reduced considerably by setting up multiple CNG plants along the route. But the state has not even asked them to assess the option. S P Sharma, chief operating officer, GAIL, says the government is not considering the fact that the station at Manali would be open only for six months when Rohtang Pass is accessible. Moreover, there are other costs and difficulties involved in constructing the pipelines in such a terrain.

To determine the efficacy of CNG vehicles in high altitudes, the state government should have conducted dedicated trials, but so far it has not. The Himachal Pradesh government ran only two single journey trials of CNG buses, while NGT had directed it to run a month long trial.

According to a feasibility report by GAIL, CNG along the Manali-Rohtang Pass route would cost approximately Rs 98 per kg compared to Rs 37.20 per kg in Delhi. The state claims that these estimates are exaggerated.

Is there a way ahead?

Experts suggest some measures can improve viability of the project. Sharma says there should be a demand for the green fuel to make it cheaper. Compelling industries to shift to CNG can be one of the ways, he adds. The NGT suggested the “polluter pays” principle, wherein polluting industries and vehicle owners incur a cess, can help finance the transition to cleaner fuel.

Another suitable option for the steep slopes of Rohtang is electric vehicles. The state government has already floated tenders for these but without studying their suitability and environmental and social impacts in the Rohtang area. K Munshi, professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, says conventional e-vehicles are unlikely to work in the region because battery performance drop drastically as temperatures dip below 10oC. Temperatures at Rohtang dip up to -20oC in winters. Electric vehicles can be suitable only if designed specifically for the terrain and conditions, he adds. The problem, it seems, is not of resource, but of lack of intent.

Balak Ram Thakur of the Him-Aanchal Taxi Operators Union says he would not mind shifting to a CNG vehicle, but first the government should make the transition.

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