Silkyara tunnel collapse: Not the first, nor the last

The Modi government turned the rescue into a media spectacle, but it was the skill of rat-hole miners that saved the day

The underconstruction tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. (Photo: Dhruv)
The underconstruction tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. (Photo: Dhruv)

Rashme Sehgal

On Tuesday night, November 28, after 400 hours of uncertainty, all 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel were rescued. As they were pulled out on wheeled stretchers through cement pipes, the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief.

It didn’t escape the notice of those who had been following the unfolding saga of this formidable rescue operation that finally it was the skills of ‘rat-hole mining’ experts that succeeded where the entire might of the Indian State had failed. After the breakdown of the large drilling machines, a dozen specialists of manual digging techniques used shovels, hand-held cutters and taslas (iron vessels for carrying mud) to get through the final 12 metres of debris. They saved the day and they saved the workers.

The Modi government turned the entire rescue operation into a media spectacle. The workers, yet to find their bearings after 17 gruelling days underground, suddenly found themselves surrounded by a bevy of VIPs.

As they emerged, they were garlanded by Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami while Union minister of state for transport and highways Gen V.K. Singh (retd) draped white silk scarves around their necks. Only then were they taken by ambulance to a nearby community health centre in Chinyalisaur where a 41-bed facility with oxygen support had been set up for them; to be flown thereafter to AIIMS-Rishikesh on Wednesday morning.

The Australian tunnel expert Dix, who is both a lawyer and a geologist, told the press in Uttarkashi that this was one of the toughest operations he has witnessed. The stakes were very high and the operation very delicate, with the rescuers having to ensure that everyone came out safe and sound.

With the mission successful and the workers in recovery, it is time for urgent introspection. Why has India been witnessing an increasing number of tunnel cave-ins and other disasters in the ecologically fragile Himalayas? What steps need to be immediately taken in order to ensure such a nightmare does not recur?

It is more than ironical that on the very same Tuesday, chief minister Dhami was the guest of honour at the ‘6th World Disaster Management Conference’ being held in Dehradun. The annual conference brings policymakers, activists and scientists together to focus on the key challenges that arise on how to tackle and prevent disasters. What kind of conclusions might the conference reach in a state that has relentlessly engineered such disasters?

Anjal Prakash, research director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy summed up the mood when he warned that our present policies were “playing havoc with the Himalayas. Such disasters are going to rise because we are living in a fragile ecosystem. We need to re-look at all the projects we are executing in the Himalayas. Each of them needs to be re-evaluated keeping safety aspects in mind”.

Raghav Chandra, former chairman of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the nodal body executing the Char Dham Yojana stressed the need to find a balance between “development aspirations and environment protection”. Consultants being hired by the government were clearly not doing due diligence. “The consultants are cutting corners while preparing DPRs (Detailed Project Reports). Proper technical evaluations are not being prepared and, as a result, the execution is slipshod,” he said.

Alok Verma, a retired Indian Railways chief engineer, was even more scathing in his criticism. “Why did this tunnel collapse? Tunnel collapses around the globe are a rare phenomenon and reflect a failure of both design and construction. All the documents of the Hyderabad-based Navayuga Engineering Company (NEC) constructing this tunnel should be immediately seized before NEC officials destroy key evidence,” Verma said.

He also drew links between the Silkyara tunnel collapse and the 12 tunnel collapses that took place during construction work by the Indian Railways.

“The road and railway ministries cannot operate in silos, they need to learn from each other. After all, construction is taking place within the same environment,” he stressed.

Verma highlighted two accidents in the North-East last year: 23 workers lost their lives when a railway bridge collapsed in Mizoram’s Aizawl district and 62 people died when a massive landslide hit a mega railway project in Manipur’s Noney district. Amongst the dead were three railway engineers.

“None of these accidents received the kind of publicity the Silkyara tunnel received. Nor did they witness the kind of mobilisation and resources that were put into this rescue operation,” said Verma.

This kind of mobilisation is not the norm for most road or rail disasters. Over 200 workers died in February 2021 when flood waters swept away the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project and the NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad project. Their families are yet to be issued death certificates and are still awaiting the Rs 20 lakh compensation per worker that had been announced at the time of the disaster.

The burning questions remain. Why, for instance, when the central government has made a major infrastructural push across the Himalayas, are no proper disaster management plans in place? The entire Silkyara rescue operation was an expensive example of trial and error, with machinery being flown in from all corners of the country in specially chartered IAF planes.

As Verma pointed out, “Skilled technicians are required to use these machines. It seemed there was tremendous political pressure to keep on tunnelling day and night, which is why they continued to use them even when they came up against iron rods and other obstacles. They should have stopped drilling work immediately."

"Also, why were rescue operations begun without a proper ground survey? With drilling operations going on at both ends of the tunnel and from the top, there were apprehensions about a further cave-in, which would have led to a bigger disaster!” he added.

So far, no one has been held accountable. When asked about this, both chief minister Dhami and General Singh replied that FIRs would be filed later. The cost of the rescue operation must have run into crores of rupees. Is the NEC going to pick up the tab? Will the government also levy a fine on the consultants who reportedly prepared a slipshod DPR? Will there be greater transparency?

“There is no system of using in-house experts within the country,” clarified Verma. “The government is using foreign consultants for road and rail construction. Thirty foreign consultants have been hired to help in the rail construction taking place in Kashmir. Another seven consultants have been hired to provide inputs in the Rishikesh–Karnaprayag rail link. In the first place, proper road and rail alignments and ground surveys are not being done. Then, foreign consultants are being brought in at huge costs to solve the mess”.

Most environmentalists believe the root of these Himalayan disasters is politicians handing out contracts running into thousands of crores to construction agencies that are seen to be close to them.

Hemant Dhyani, a former member of the expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court to look into this entire Char Dham Yojana fiasco, emphasised repeatedly that their suggestion to construct a narrower tunnel was disregarded, resulting in heightened blasting activities and an elevated risk of collapse. Environmental risk assessments were neglected, with tunnels being exempted due to the project’s segmentation into sections of less than 100km each. “This is a serious wake-up call for all of us,” he said.

C.P. Rajendran, geologist and adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, has been raising the red flag for the last five years against the rampant construction work going on in these fragile and relatively young mountains.

Rajendran had pointed out that tectonic fault lines were not taken into consideration before construction started at the Silkyara–Barkot tunnel. The MCT (Main Central Thrust) tectonic fault line along the Himalayas poses a grave danger to the construction of roads and tunnels. Why on earth was the Silkyara tunnel located close to this fault line?

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