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Anxiety Grows Around Uttarkashi Tunnel Collapse Rescue Operations

Rashme Sehgal |
It’s unsurprising the tunnel collapsed in a zone with high seismic activity—the shocking part is the news of negligence in protecting workers.
Uttarkashi tunnel collapse

Uttarkashi: Security personnel and others at the under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway, days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed trapping several workers inside, in Uttarkashi district, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. The operation to rescue 40 labourers stuck in the tunnel has been suspended since Friday. (PTI Photo)

Will the 41 men trapped in the Silkyara tunnel in the Uttarkashi district since the morning of 12 November be brought out alive? This question must surely be uppermost on the minds of the family members of these trapped workers. And it is surely the question that sets their hearts racing with anxiety. 

For now, they have all gathered at the mouth of the cave, where they anxiously await news of their well-being and hope for their quick rescue from the jaws of death. 

The workers are trapped behind a 70-metre-thick wall of rock and debris within a 4.5-kilometre tunnel. The authorities and fellow workers have established contact with the trapped men, and, fortunately, there have been no casualties. However, having spent 150 hours in a dark cave without fresh air or light has taken its toll. The workers, exhausted by their horrifying ordeal, have been reduced to speaking in whispers. This is causing tempers and patience to slowly fray at the site.

The problem is that none of the rescue operations have succeeded so far. Bhim Singh Rawat, a scientist with SANDRP who has been following these operations closely, says that all three significant rescue attempts to cut through the wall of rock blocking the tunnel have failed for different reasons.

“When the tunnel collapsed on Diwali morning, only one JCB machine was available at the site, which proved of little use. The SDRF [State Disaster Relief Force], ITBP [Indo-Tibetan Border Police] and BRO [Border Roads Organisation] arrived at the cave-in within hours and sent for a vertical drilling machine from Haridwar. Work to remove the debris started on 13 November, but loose rock kept pouring at the accident site, making further progress impossible,” says Rawat.

They then decided to send for a high-performance American-made auger drilling machine, which 3 Hercules aircraft airlifted to the site. A platform needed to be created for the machine, and it was Thursday afternoon when it could push a six-metre-long steel pipe with a 900 mm diameter into the debris. Another pipe was welded to the auger machine to help move the pipe deeper.

Uttarkashi tunnel collapse

A high-performance drilling machine was airlifted from Indore for rescue operation on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Col Deepak Patil of the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), who heads the drilling operations, says that apprehensions of damaging the steel pipe if it struck steel plates—once fixed to the tunnel’s roof and now part of the debris—forced them to proceed a very cautious pace. Also, machines buried under the rubble obstruct the drilling of a path to the trapped workers.

At around 10 am on Friday, rescue officials hit one of many roadblocks—falling loose rock and gravel—forcing the rescue mission to stop. On the same day, an internal government report on the rescue operations said that four 22-meter pipes had been pushed in and that work on the fifth pipe was underway but hit a roadblock due to obstructions.

Railway experts at the site have suggested drilling a smaller tunnel parallel to the one the workers are stuck inside. Another expert team from Delhi at the collapse site believes there must be a “geophysical survey” of the debris. They suggest a ‘seismic reflection method’ using ground penetrating radar to detect obstacles to the drilling machine, which could help change the path of inserting the pipes.

It speaks for the callousness and indifference of the Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd (NECL), which was constructing the tunnel that it did not even know how many workers were trapped. On Friday evening, the Uttarkashi district administration said 41 and not 40, as said by the company, are trapped in the tunnel they were building. 

Off the record, a rescue official says this accident could have been worse had it not occurred on the day just preceding the Diwali holiday. Each shift working on the tunnel comprised 150 to 200 workers on regular days. Because Diwali was around the corner, many workers were on leave, while some did not show up for work. They were the lucky ones, for the officials of the NHIDCL admit off the record that they are worried by the repeated cave-ins, which have increased the falling debris from 50-55m to 65-70m. They blame this on the lack of proper “geological inputs” because they are finding it difficult to work with the area’s highly malleable rock. However, other experts are surprised at how the construction of a tunnel of this size was allowed without a thorough geological survey.

Dr SP Sati, geologist and head of the Department of Social Sciences at the Veer Chandra Singh Garhwali University, finds it “shocking” that the NECL built no emergency escape route or tunnel, as is the norm in tunnel construction. “It is well known that the Himalayas are fragile, and tunnelling without proper preventative measures can be hazardous. Uncontrolled blasting during tunnel construction creates instability, and perhaps this was the reason behind this incident.”

Dr PC Nawani, former director general of the Geological Survey of India, also expresses shock that a long tunnel was dug without providing escape routes to facilitate rescues during any emergency. He says extra support should have been provided in all areas with soft and loose soil to prevent cave-ins.

Uttarakhand is no stranger to tectonic activities—even on Friday, an earthquake struck Uttarkashi, fortunately, just 3.1 in magnitude.

The failed attempts have sparked despair among the relatives of the workers. Chaudhary Lal, whose 22-year-old son Manjeet Lal is among those trapped, is increasingly despondent as he keeps vigil outside the cave. Manjeet started working at the site two months ago. Tragically, Chaudhary recently lost another child, a son, who was electrocuted in Mumbai.

Another worker, Vikram Singh from the Champawat district of Bihar, spoke to his brother Pushkar on Friday. He asked Pushkar not to inform their mother about the cave-in to protect her from the shock of the news.

Uttarkashi tunnel collapse

Workers near the under-construction tunnel on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. The operation to rescue 40 labourers stuck in the tunnel has been suspended since Friday. (PTI Photo)

It is both heartening and devastating to speak with fellow workers engaged in the rescue operations. They have been in touch with the trapped workers and try to comfort and reassure them. But the stuck workers keep asking: “When will you bring us out of here?”

Scientist Dr CP Rajendran, who has specialised in earthquake geology and tectonics, expresses shock about the lack of safety measures during the construction of the tunnel. He says it is apparent no SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures were followed, which has had serious consequences for innocent workers. Previously, such excavations in the mountains were carried out under the constant supervision of competent geologists, continuous tunnel logging, and other preventive measures. Now, people are bound to wonder whether safety norms were flouted and the authorities ignored it. No review of the tunnel construction procedures was ordered even after a tunnel collapsed in the same area in 2019, says Dr Rajendran.

Indeed, the same section of the tunnel collapsed in 2019, but fortunately, no workers were trapped in the debris then.

No casualties have been reported, and the workers are provided oxygen and food through pipes. The whole country is hoping a miracle occurs and they are brought out alive at the earliest.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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