Was a two-lane option for Silkyara tunnel proposed, approved but discarded?
Even as Gadkari visited the site on Sunday and told the media that ‘machine-willing’ the rescue team would reach the 41 stranded workers in the next two days, uncertainty clouds their fate
As insensitive district administration officials literally brought out the red carpet on Sunday for the union minister of Road, Surface Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari to step on at Silkyara, the ordeal of the 41 workers, trapped in the tunnel since 12 November, shows no sign of ending soon.
The union minister told the waiting media that all options were being tried and the horizontal drilling remained the best option. If the machines continued to work smoothly, he hoped, the rescue team would be able to ‘reach’ the stranded workers in the next two or two-and-a-half days.
On Saturday, the former Secretary and Advisor at the PMO Bhaskar Khulbe had spoken of four to five days more for the workers to be rescued.
While the union minister spoke of using ‘robots’ to reach out to the workers, there was confusion about what he meant by ‘reaching the workers’. Did he mean that the pipe being drilled would reach the workers or did he mean that rescuers or robots would be able to reach them?
There was confusion about the roads being built by the Border Roads Organisation, ostensibly to allow heavy machineries and equipment to be hauled up to the accident site. Even as the BRO roads will be ready by Monday, there is not much clarity of what kind of machinery is awaited and when they would arrive.
An uncle of one of the stranded workers Deepak Kumar (20), who was allowed to have a brief conversation with him on Saturday, caused more consternation by telling the media that Deepak complained of being hungry and not having enough oxygen. On Saturday, the worker apparently told his uncle, they were sent a kilo of ‘Badam’, which was insufficient for the 41 workers stranded, reported local newspapers.
While the veracity of the claim is yet to be confirmed, officials added to the confusion by saying that a bigger pipe is being inserted and from Monday, 20 November they will be able to send in more substantial food. Since 12 November the stranded workers have reportedly survived on ‘Chana’ (Gram), jaggery and nuts.
Another controversy has erupted with experts pointing out that the government had sanctioned a bi-lane tunnel at Silkyara with provision for ‘escape lanes’; but if indeed they were included in the DPR (Detailed Project Report), the plan appeared to have been abandoned since then.
While Nitin Gadkari appeared to defend tunnels in the Himalayan region and spoke of a multiplicity of tunnels being built in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand at a cost of Rs 2.75 lakh crore, he also conceded that there were challenges because of the fragile mountain. Experts were quick to point out that in such conditions, two parallel lanes with lateral escape channels connecting the two are the safest option.
“Twin tube tunnels are easier to construct in weak, unstable rocks, and provide an escape route in the case of fire or other types of accidents in one of the tunnels as the second tunnel remains clear. Both the tunnels are interconnected with lateral passages,” tweeted Alok Kumar Verma, a retired engineer from the Indian Railways.
Activist Anoop Nautiyal also shared a report which seemed to suggest that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had sanctioned the 4,530-metre Silkyara-Barkot tunnel as a ‘bi-lane’ with escape-lanes.
As Sunday drew to a close, it became clear that the stranded workers are unlikely to see daylight till Tuesday at least.
The nation is hopefully praying for their early rescue.