Silkyara mishap: No light at the end of this tunnel

The Silkyara tunnel disaster in Uttarakhand is only the most recent in a long line of mishaps, and it has ‘man-made’ written all over it

The operation to rescue 41 labourers stuck in the Silkyara tunnel was halted after a drilling machine broke down
The operation to rescue 41 labourers stuck in the Silkyara tunnel was halted after a drilling machine broke down

Rashme Sehgal

On Diwali morning, 40 workers found themselves trapped in a 4.5-km-long under-construction tunnel connecting Silkyara to Polgaon in Uttarkashi district. This is only the most recent in a long line

of mishaps that have plagued the construction of what is being touted as one of the longest tunnels being built under the Char Dham Yojana.

While keeping the benefits of motorists at heart—the tunnel will reduce the distance from Uttarkashi to Yamunotri by 26 kilometres—it is completely insensitive to both human and natural resources in this vulnerable zone.

Bhim Singh Rawat, a scientist working with SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People) points out, “No safety protocols were in place when the accident occurred. When the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) arrived at the tunnel site on this black Sunday, they found there was only one JCB (mechanical extractor) available at the site. The Augur drilling machine needed to dig a hole through the tunnel reached the disaster site only on 14 November, a full 48 hours after the accident had occurred.”

The most regrettable aspect of this tragedy is that part of this very same tunnel had collapsed in 2019. (Fortunately, at that time no workers were trapped.)

Rawat is horrified to note that “no safety ducts had been put in place despite the fact that they were working along a fault line, which the supervising engineers know to be extremely risky. The government had also sent for a 900-metre-long pipeline in order to reach the workers, but since that operation failed, they sent for Hume pipes (precast concrete pipes) which will be used to try and rescue the trapped workers”.

The trial-and-error method make one’s blood run cold. Government officials maintain they have established contact with the trapped workers but have not parted with simple voice recordings of messages that might reassure the stricken families of the poor workers.

Local politicians, when informed that most of these workers are from outside the state (only two are from Uttarakhand), point out that when the Char Dham yatra was started, the central government had claimed it would provide large scale employment to the local youth. Clearly, this has not been the case.

Varun Adhikari, an engineering geologist says, “The collapse at Silkyara is a classic case of unprofessional tunnelling practices and negligence toward essential tunnelling principles. It also highlights the importance of maintaining diligence in adhering to proper procedures especially in reprofiling and utilising hydraulic breakers or minor blasting with due consideration of the tunnel’s specific conditions and potential consequences on the surrounding rock mass.”

Dr C.P. Rajendran, a scientist who specialises in earthquake geology and tectonics, is equally aghast. “No SOPs (standard operating procedures) were being followed here, with serious consequences. Previously, such excavations in the mountains were carried out under the supervision of competent geologists, followed by continuous tunnel logging, among other precautionary measures. Why were no safety norms or reviews ordered by the authorities even after the tunnel collapse in 2019?”

The answer is not hard to find. The tunnel construction was being supervised by the National Highways Authority of India along with DSCL (DCM Shriram Consolidated Limited) which, in turn, contracted it to the Navyug Construction Company which, in turn, sub-let it to another company that obviously lacks the expertise to undertake such a project.

Inadequate geological understanding of the natural composition of the rocks in the region and non-compliance with regulations are a lethal combination. Cost constraints (such as they are) compromise regulations (such as they are), while the extensive use of explosive triggers landslides. Environment Impact Assessment had been done away with for the entire Char Dham project and people on the ground are paying for this with their lives.

Consider the toll taken by the road and rail construction activity in Uttarakhand under the Char Dham Yojana and the Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd respectively.

In October, nearly 40 workers had a narrow escape after a fire broke out (due to an inflammatory chemical) inside a tunnel being constructed for the Rishikesh–Karnaprayag railway project in Rudra-prayag district.

On 13 August, 114 workers and engineers trapped in shoulder-deep water about 300 metres inside the under-construction Edit-2 tunnel were rescued in the nick of time.This too is part of the same Rishikesh–Karnaprayag project. They were lucky. The water was first pumped out using heavy equipment after which a police contingent was employed to bring them out.

In July, a landslide triggered by heavy rainfall led to enormous pile-ups on both ends of the Daat Kali tunnel that connects Saharanpur to Dehradun, with commuters held up inside.

The Chamba–Tehri tunnel which is part of the Rishikesh–Gangotri road link has developed huge cracks. People living in this region are terrified because the tunnelling has resulted in major land subsidence in this entire area with their houses developing cracks as well.

It is no consolation that tunnel collapses are not unique to Uttarakhand. On 19 May, the tunnel under construction at Khooni Nallah in Ramban district on the Jammu–Srinagar highway collapsed, resulting in the death of four workers and injuries to many more.

With multiple fatalities resulting from the 1,100 landslides in Uttarakhand alone this year, widespread human, material, economic and environmental loss has exceeded the community’s ability to cope, as we have seen in Himachal and Sikkim as well.

Rajendran warns that the intensity of disasters in the Himalayas will only go from bad to worse: “It has become clear that the exponential increase in the occurrence of landslide-related disasters in the Uttarakhand Himalayas cannot be categorised any longer as ‘natural disaster’, as much of it is man-made or human accelerated disaster, triggered by unscientific cliff cutting to widen the roads under the Char Dham project. The tunnel construction failure on the Brahmakhal–Yamunotri road in Uttarkashi district is only the most recent in the trail of disasters we have witnessed in the Himalayas.”

Despite objections raised by expert panels, and caveats issued by courts, the government is steamrolling ahead. “How else do you explain people working early morning on a holiday (Diwali)?” asked Rajendran. “The work is going on 24x7, the contractor must be under tremendous pressure to meet a deadline given by the authorities. Easy to speculate what the hurry is in an election year.”

Every time such disasters occur, government representatives label them ‘geological surprises’. If massive infrastructural projects are implemented under incompetent supervision in a dynamic and environmentally fragile landscape like that of the Himalayas, anything would be a ‘surprise’. What is shocking is the cavalier disregard of environmental concerns and scientific advice. And the heartless, heedless risk to human life.

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