Silkyara tunnel: Hope for trapped workers recedes as rescue efforts start from scratch 

The 41 workers trapped in the tunnel since 12 November are unlikely to be rescued anytime soon

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

AJ Prabal

 A new hi-tech machine is now being flown in from Holland for drilling a vertical tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarkashi, where 41 workers and junior engineers are trapped since last Sunday, 12 November. The vertical tunnel is one of the five fresh plans which were finalised on Saturday following long deliberations with experts in the presence of a ‘high-level’ team from the PMO.

After several false starts this week, most of which was taken up in trying to drill a horizontal ‘tunnel within a tunnel’, experts decided to accelerate rescue efforts by simultaneously launching five different operations. While the current attempt to drill a horizontal escape-tunnel from the Silkyara-end will continue, attempt will be made to drill a vertical tunnel from top of the mountain for which the machine from Holland is being flown in.

The third attempt will be to complete the tunnel from the Barkot-end to join the stranded workers, trapped 270 metres from the Silkyara-end. The tunnel is apparently ready from both ends barring a 530-metre stretch in the middle. The length of the tunnel from Silkyara to Barkot is 4531 metres. The tunnel is ‘complete’ up to 2340 metres from the Silkyara-end and 1,600-metres from the Barkot-end.

A portion of the ‘completed’ tunnel had collapsed on Diwali morning, trapping the workers inside. While a post-mortem will be required to examine how a portion of the ‘completed’ part collapsed, indicating inspection and supervision failures, there is also rising anxiety at the possibility of other portions also collapsing.

The fourth attempt is likely to be made by experts from the Indian Railways with long experience of laying railway tracks through tunnels. The fifth and the final attempt is to simultaneously drill two escape-tunnels on either side of the under-construction tunnel.

Will these attempts turn out to be too little and too late is the question that is being asked. There is also concern at the multiplicity of agencies engaged in rescue operations with some sources in muted voices hinting at lack of coordination between them.

Hope of rescuing the men early has receded substantially with rising concern about their physical and mental health. While officials claim the workers are all well and have access to food, water, oxygen, medicines, vitamin capsules and consultation with counsellors and health workers, they admitted for the first time on Saturday that anti-depressant pills are also being supplied to them. Some, if not all, of the workers sounded feeble and weak, confided relatives who were allowed to speak to some of the workers.

Meanwhile, the state government has gone on an overdrive to list the arrangements it has made. They include ambulances, JCBs, trucks, spares, drilling machines, oxygen and a temporary helipad made five kilometres from the accident site, to undoubtedly facilitate the movement of experts and VIPs. 

They are small consolation for the 41 workers—a majority of whom, 29 to be precise, are from the eastern states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Eight more are from Uttar Pradesh. Only two are from Uttarakhand and one from Himachal Pradesh. 

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