Silkyara tunnel: Plenty of lessons to be learned, will we?

The cave-in that left 41 workers trapped in the Himalayas highlights the need for more safety, but also more respect for the region's fragile environment.

What are the lessons of India tunnel collapse?
What are the lessons of India tunnel collapse?
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DW

With the collapse of the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand prompting a massive rescue effort to reach 41 construction workers, India's government is taking steps aimed at avoiding similar incidents in the future, and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which builds and manages India's highway network, has been ordered to inspect all tunnel construction projects nationwide.

"To ensure safety and adherence to the highest quality standards during construction, NHAI will undertake safety audits of all 29 under construction tunnels across the country," it said in a statement.

These will include 12 tunnels in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and six in the troubled Jammu and Kashmir region. The rest are in other Indian states, including Uttarakhand.

Some of the areas of improvement are obvious, given India's poor safety record. For example, the Silkyara tunnel apparently did not have an emergency exit, posing yet another challenge for rescuers struggling with busted machinery and possibly unstable terrain.

But many feel the collapse indicates a wider problem, with poorly planed development in the Himalayas and its impact on the frequency and intensity of disasters in the sensitive region. Uttarakhand is often hit by landslides, earthquakes and flooding, and some experts and residents warn the mountains there are geologically unstable.

Officials suspect that the latest collapse could have been caused by a hidden weak section of rock. With Indian and global media focusing on the story, more and more attention is being drawn to the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystem.

Big plans for big roads through the Himalayas

The collapsed tunnel is 4.5 km (2.8 miles) long and located on the Char Dham pilgrimage route, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

The project aims to link four important Hindu pilgrimage sites of through 890 km of two-lane roads built at a reported cost of nearly Rs 13,000 crore ($1.5 billion), and construction companies being instructed to build wide, all-weather roads between the holy towns of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

However, environmentalists and experts point out that rampant development is making the local ecosystem even more vulnerable to the changing climate, and say that years of unbridled construction, hydropower development, and the lack of a proper drainage system have all contributed to the crisis.

This year alone, the Himalayan region has experienced several disasters, from the sinking of Joshimath town in Uttarakhand to floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, as well as a glacial lake outburst in Sikkim in October, apart from the Silkyara tunnel collapse.


Saving the Himalaya from 'development destruction'

Environmentalist Shekhar Pathak believes work on the Silkyara tunnel started without sufficient geological surveys. He told DW that no lesson were learned from the 2021 floods in the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli valleys, which claimed more than 200 lives, including many inside the tunnels of Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower plant.

Pathak, also the founder of the NGO People's Association for Himalaya Area Research, claimed advanced safety measures for Silkyara tunnel "were missing since the beginning", and said, "The execution of emergency evacuation was not well thought out. Anything in the Himalayas should be done with in-depth studies and analysis and with detailed dialogue with community and scientists."

"Saving the Himalayas from big developmental destruction is equally important, otherwise more lives will be at risk in the future," he said.

Melting glaciers increase the risk

The Char Dham pilgrimage route is an ambitious project, but a growing number of voices claim critical mistakes and false assumptions in its planning and implementation.

Experts say allowing it bypassed the environmental impact assessment process mandated for projects exceeding 100 km. Officially, the nearly 900-km route is not a single project but 53 small ones, which allowed it to proceed with just a token environmental assessment rather than a survey needed for a project of this scale.

A Google Earth image of the terrain around the tunnel
A Google Earth image of the terrain around the tunnel

Sunita Narain, director of the thinktank Centre for Science and Environment, warns that climate change is bringing more volatility to the region because of unseasonal and extreme rain events. Various studies have found that glaciers in the Himalayas are also melting dramatically, potentially increasing the risks of floods and landslides.

"The bottom line is that this region is different — it is not the plains of India which are situated on alluvial soil; it is not the Indian peninsular region where there is hard rock; it is not even the slopes of the Alps, where mountains have aged," Narain told DW.

Illegal 'shortcut' to rush the project

In 2019, India's Supreme Court appointed a high-ranking committee to assess the potential environmental and social damage and to recommend measures to mitigate the impact. Veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra was appointed the committee chairman, but he resigned in 2022 claiming its recommendations were not implemented.

Chopra told DW the entire project was rushed. "In the process, shortcuts have been taken which violated the existing laws. The avoidance of an environmental impact assessment was particularly detrimental," he said.

He said incident like the tunnel collapse will continue to happen as long as environmental issues are swept aside. "For development in the Himalayas, it is necessary to first address ecological concerns... sustainable development demands approaches that are both geologically and ecologically sound."

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