The sky road through Himachal


By: Jyoti Kamal

A tribute to the frontier road builders of India

A road that puts the fear of the Lord in your hearts. Brings about mad panic attacks when you don’t know what you can possibly do to save yourself from plunging several hundred feet off an edgeless road into the abyss below. A road that makes you want to walk rather than sit helplessly in a vehicle. A road in the northern Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh that makes you think of disc brakes and studded tyres. A road built by Jharkhand, an Indian state far removed and far poorer.

There are thousands from Jharkhand, men, women and families huddled under dangerous rock shelters, sitting it out when a storm of rocks slides over their head and down into the raging Satluj and Spiti rivers, these are the people who connect India’s remote Northern Frontiers. They are the road builders who make it possible for the curious to gape in awe at the stark barrenness of a land that has just four colours – brown of the mountains towering all around, white of the snow capping their peaks, an azure blue sky with not a cloud in sight and the grey black of the road snaking aside mountains a few hundred feet above the rivers at the foot of the valleys. Green? Forget the color. It doesn’t exist here.

Welcome to the Hindustan Tibet Road that connects Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh with the rest of the country. It’s the road down which Kinnauri apples make their way to India’s teeming plains and their bustling markets. It is the road on which military convoys move to border posts and frontier military stations like Pooh, Powari, and Kaurik which in themselves look strange perched on mountain sides in layers one atop the other.

It’s a road that was a pony trail on which the special short breed of Kinnauri horses used to wind their way up to the Tibetan plateau and back down to Shimla carrying salt, other rock minerals and traditional stuff from the highlands. And it is a road that the locals don’t want to build. They are happy with the money that their annual apple crop gets them. They are happy with the excruciatingly slow pace of their lives. I envy them for that, but then maybe I don’t when I think again.
And that is where Jharkhand pitches in. I ask little Divya’s mother why has she come to this desolate barrenness to make a living. She is black with soot. Her clothes have turned grimy with the oily smoke emanating from coal tar drums boiling on roadside fires. She is one amongst a ‘gang’ in road parlance working on the stretch between Sumdo and Hurling in Spiti. She says just three words … `kaam key liye’ – to work. Divya is hiding her face in her mother’s clothes and peeking at me and flashing a bright smile and then quickly hiding again. An army officer stops by and tells me to tell the front passenger of our vehicle to keep his eyes peeled for stones rolling down mountain tops which could either ruin the vehicle, kill the people inside or just plain simple roll down the mountain along with the vehicle. I look at the ‘gang’ standing shelterless, blank expressions on their blackened faces and from them I look up at the looming mountain with piles of boulders perched precariously and I think of gallantry awards. Why are they only given to those who lay down their lives in a spur of the moment decision, which I wont hesitate to say, even I could take. But these are people who show courage, every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every month and every year. And to be able to sustain courage over time is true gallantry, not just to show a mere flash of fearless ness. And there are hundreds who have died. Nameless, faceless road builders from Jharkhand, too poor to be written about, to poor to be cared about. Crushed under boulders, dead with their trucks on the bottom of crevasses, dead frozen in snow, dead in floods in the mighty Satluj, dead as bridges crashed. Yet they are there today. Still building the roads. They go on and on. They are here to earn money, some say. But so am I. But there is a difference between them and us. Fine, I have had better luck for now. But their bad luck perhaps makes us luckier on these roads. And thank you, road builders, for that.

The ‘gang’ members are paid Rs 2,925 ($ 75 per month!) per head. And they have to make do with that. Clothes, no more than one set needed. There is no water to bathe, or wash clothes, and if there is, it is freezing cold, no energy to do so, anyway, after the back breaking work of the day and no need to do so, for the black soot cannot be washed off and a new set will be black by the end of the next day. And then I spot two children sleeping under rags on a rock by the roadside and a wave of sadness envelops me when I think of my own child back home. I try and do everything for him and so must these two children’s poor parents. They have carefully put them on a rock to soak up the heat of the sun and they have put them in rags that are cleaner – not black, and they are wearing tiny worn out shoes and their fingernails are clipped and there is a rag to wipe their runny noses. I talk to a guy who has a strange adolescent voice, it suddenly becomes hoarse and then suddenly turns sqeaky and I smile at his face and he smiles back understanding why I am smiling. He says this is the place to save money, for there is no place to spend money here. No markets, no liquor vends, no nothing. Work, earn, eat, sleep, talk, work, earn….and that is why in two or three years they manage to save 60 to 75 thousand rupees. And I realize perhaps my savings account does not have that kind of money. I don’t save.

And for these frontier road builders, what else does the nation do? What do we do? For we are the nation. When one of them is injured even fatally no army helicopter lifts off to bring them to medical facilities. Even where there are many of them working, a Rs 5,000 (US $ 125) walkie talkie is something they can not get or imagine. A lakh-and-a-half is paid off to the family of anyone who dies and that’s it. Maybe their memories live on, on these roads, in the silence of the valleys with the whistle of the wind. Thank you Jharkhand for connecting Himachal. For building India.

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  1. Jyoti Kamal

    Justly have you highlighted the plight of workers engaged in maintaining these high altitude roads, which are not only the life line of a remote region but provide logical support to the security forces camping out there.

    Having traveled through the region, on more that one occasion, I can empathize with the workers having to make a living in such harsh conditions.

    Fifteen years ago, Prem,a friend from the village of Chang Ho, on the borders of Kinnaur and Spiti and close to the Indo-Tibetan border was thankful that the Indo-China war did take place.

    “Had this war never taken place, we would have been a forgotten people by Tibet, China or India,” he said.

    My response was “Why”?

    He reply was “a road to this place would never have been built and the region would have continued to live its primitive lifestyle for decades together.”

    However, one fact that you state in your report that the roads of Himachal are built by Jharkhand people is not true.

    When development began to stir the hills after they attained freedom from local rulers, the British and the Punjab government, a deprived people took on the task themselves as the successive governments put roads on high priority.

    Tibetan refugee influx of 1962 contributed a lot towards road building activity for an uprooted people could not find easy livelihoods after having been displaced by conflict.

    However the greatest tribute towards these hill roads comes from the hardy tribe of Gorkhas who not only adapt to the climate easily but are certainly one of the hardiest races in the world.

    Now that many opportunities are opening up in the country, labour for undertaking these hazardous tasks is in short supply but the peaceful conditions and the relatively higher wages offered, do find contractors engaging labour from far off places like Jharkhand.

    And thats how these people from Jharkhand have ended up in Spiti and Kinnaur working on expanding the road network as well helping maintain the existing one.

    Your story is a tribute to all who have helped build this vital infrastructure.

  2. No doubt anyone who contributed in completed the ITB road should be duly saluted for the achievement. And, as Ravinder mentioned, we should also recognise that had it not been for the Ind0-China war, the road would not have been there in its present shape. The sad part being, our government seems to be as ignorent about the importace of building road network in the are as it was before the war. we often come to hear that narrow dusty cartroads on the Indian side of Indi-Tibetan borded give way to wide roads on the Tibetan side. Of course, we do face the challenge of a difficult terrain on our side, but I guess it is more about attitude. If the Chinese can think of building a road to Everest just to prove their might, we Indians can at least give ourselves better road connectivity to our remote areas.

  3. "…and I think of gallantry awards. Why are they only given to those who lay down their lives in a spur of the moment decision, which I wont hesitate to say, even I could take"

    the article was good but just this part left me with a not so good taste…

    just ask those fellas(gallantry awards) who lay their lives for the country , how long have they stayed away from their families and worked like mules in godforsaken places…

    it's not that easy to even earn the right to defend the nation…

    it is a lifetime of a decision and not a split second fate deciding decision

  4. "Why are they only given to those who lay down their lives in a spur of the moment decision, which I wont hesitate to say, even I could take."

    This article is good but could have done without taking below the belt pot shot. Following your statement, I can say, why give awards to road builders, which I wont hesitate to say, even I can do.

    In reality, it might be quite the opposite i.e. WE can neither build roads in extreme conditions nor give up our life for our country.

    Also, every year at the investiture (award giving) ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, men from BRO (border roads org) and GREF have won gallantry awards. (Shaurya Chakra etc)

  5. lost my earlier comment.

    "I think of gallantry awards. Why are they only given to those who lay down their lives in a spur of the moment decision, which I wont hesitate to say, even I could take”

    Awards are given to these people too. Every year at the investiture (award giving) ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, people from BRO (border roads org) and GREF are given Shaurya Chakra etc. Check up on the Min Of Defence site.

  6. Friends,

    Awards do not necessarily mean trophies, titles or medals. An acknowledgment of someone's work and dedication, irrespective of any prize or token can also be an award and I think Jyoti Kamal has done that.

    Hema D.

  7. And why do we always have to look towards some organisation or governmnet to honour anyone……let us show some empathy towards these people and atleast report about these unsung heroes.

  8. I want to share my great grandfather's stories about his visits to Tibet in the early 1930s. He would visit Tibet along with the Rai Sahib of Kotgarh who was the trade agent of the Britishers with the Tibet. It used to be a contingent of 30-40 able bodied people who worked as cooks, laborers and guards. He was an expert marksman of his time and was issued a licence for a gun during those times.

    I was too young to remember all his exploits but do recollect that they would follow the old Hindustan Tibet Road with mules loaded with goods to be transported. They used to cross bridges made of grass called majhi in local lingo along the various rivulets. At times the mules would refuse to cross these 'bridges'. First the gooods were removed from the mules and transported on back to the other end of the 'bridge' and then the mules (donkeys) were ferried on human back to the other end of the rope bridge.

    They would collect the dried dung of churu (yak) on way and that would serve as the fuel for cooking food. It was a tedious job for one of the laborer as he would collect the dung while traveling. Guns used to be a great detterrent against robbers. Before calling it a day they would fire in the night to let the robbers know they had guns with them.

    They used to return via Kalimpong, now in West Bengal. I used to get amused with the word Kalimpong as it sounded something from a different world. I did'nt knew where Kalimpong existed on the map of India till the Gurkha agitation of Subhash Ghishing when Kalimpong was the nerve centre of entire movement. He would bring Kanghas from Kalimpong which were used for clearing of wool. They were insripted with a strange language which I now know was Tibetian.

    He was paid a princely salary of Rs. 10/ per month in those days of annas. He once killed a maneater in Almora hills while returning back from Kalimpong and was given a reward a Rs. 10/- and issued a life long All India gun licence which is still framed in the house.

    Yours truly has still to visit the Spiti Valley. Have'nt been ahead of Bhavanagar but to my credit is a visit to Leh, Pangong, Nubra Valley and back to Manali on my motor bike in 2000. It is actually a feat to build and maintain roads at such altitudes. The Himank division of BRO maintains the road in this sector and I salute these people for the great work they do.

  9. @ NITYIN

    Thanks for sharing whatever you could recollect about your grandfather travels on the old mule track Hindustan Tibet road.

    If there are any pictures or sketches of that period, it would be a treat to have a look at them here.

  10. NITYIN

    Please pen down whatever stories you remember on paper, blog, wherever you are comfortable. Makes for a great read. thanks.

  11. Those who built new Indo Tibet Border roads have a memorial for them in "Jeori". Quite a lot of people died making this road. Earlier BRO(Border roads organisation used to maintain the road from Rampur onwards. But now they do so only from Wangtu or Karchham. The people from Jharkhand are employees of GREF undertaking work for BRO.

    The old indo tibet road is quite majestic. Starts from Rampur via gaura, mashnu(where Atal bihari vajpayee wanted his summer home, before he settled for Manali). The road passes via Sarahan Bushair(famed Bhima Kali Mandir) and then snakes it way into Kinnaur valley. Some tour operators conduct trekking on this stretch now.

    Nice memories Nityin since my grandfather Gurunima also used to be a trader on this same route which stopped in 1959 when China invaded Tibet.

  12. gud to know you all realize the contibution of road builders in the making of unreachable n scary but wonderful places.alas to mention no space given for the names of such road builders n lost chance to make us feel proud of indian road builders' skill.

  13. Dear,Friend

    Kinnaur is a breath takingly scenic and sparsely populated region. Spiti and Satluj rivers flow through Kinnaur to

    meet at Khab and become one the Satluj. Scores of flowing streams feed these rivers and all their valleys are

    strikingly beautiful the slopes are covered with thick woods, orchards, fields and picturesque hamlets.Here are two

    of the world's great mountain ranges the Zanskar and the Great Himalaya.Sumdo is the last Kinner village on this

    road i.e.NH-22 whereafter the SH-30 starts leading into Spiti Valley. The total length of road from Shimla is 355

    Kms whereas Shimla is another 385 Kms from Delhi.

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