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Uttarkashi Tunnel Collapse: We Ignored Nature and Science; Evaded Our Own Laws

Yeh Jo India Hai Na, here we fare poorly when it comes to accountability.

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Why did the Silkyara Tunnel in Uttarkashi collapse, trapping 41 workers?

There is a fear that the answer may get buried in the debris of the mishap. The fear is understandable, because Yeh Jo India Hai Na, here we fare poorly when it comes to accountability.

Even more so, when the lives at risk are those of construction workers, who don’t have the resources to take the builder, the sub-contractors, or the government’s pliable project inspectors, to task, legally.

To put it simply, the tunnel collapsed because we have contempt for nature, we brazenly ignore science, and we evade environmental laws that we have written to prevent exactly this kind of mishap.
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Ignoring Science Turns Plans to Rubble

It is well known that the Himalayas are a young, unstable, fragile mountain range. It has active fault lines and sees far more seismic activity than say, the Alps in Europe, which are an older mountain range.

How does this translate for those building roads, tunnels, and dams in the Himalayas? It means that the Himalayas are more susceptible to excessive and unscientific construction work.

The extensive land subsidence in Joshimath that’s destroyed property worth hundreds of crores, the flash floods over the years at Kedarnath, Ladakh, and Sikkim, and the hundreds of incidents of landslides across the Himalayas – all of these are linked to reckless, uninformed construction work.

The Silkyara tunnel is part of the government’s prestigious Char Dham Pariyojana (CDP), which aims to widen 900 kilometers of road in Uttarakhand by 12 meters. The stated aim is to allow more devotees to visit the holy shrines of Uttarakhand, and in the process uplift the state economically. There is no problem with the aim. But if we ignore the science en route, then the plans can turn to rubble, pun intended.

Conservationist Priyadarshini Patel points out that a Supreme Court-constituted high-powered committee had warned against widening the road by 12 meters. It had suggested that the widening stay between 5.5 to 7 meters. But this recommendation by independent experts was opposed by government officials, and ultimately ignored.

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We Need to Talk About Accountability

And this is not all. The government also seems to have tried to circumvent its own environmental laws.

For any large-scale infrastructure project that involves cutting and tunnelling through mountains, felling trees, displacing local residents, and altering the course of rivers or the topography of large parts of the land - the law says a detailed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a must.

But the 900-kilometer CDP found a way to evade this, by dividing it into 53 smaller projects, each less than 100 kilometers in length. This allowed the government to get approvals without going through the EIA.

Cynical, unscientific, dangerous, and simply irresponsible, isn’t it?

India’s environmental laws are not ill-conceived. They have a scientific basis. Our green laws don’t say, don’t build roads and tunnels. What they do say is, follow science. There is a science to safe road and tunnel construction in the Himalayas. How can we claim that a broader road will benefit the local population when it is actually making that same area more disaster-prone?

But that’s what seems to be happening – the neta tells the bureaucrat - boasting about widening the CDP by 12 meters is a ‘winner’ in an election campaign, and so it’s non-negotiable. So the loyal babu overrides the experts, finds sarkari ways to get around tricky laws, and ensures that CDP goes ahead as ordained by the neta. The legion of builders, contractors, sub-contractors, and lower-level government ‘inspection’ officials also fall in line.

The thekedar often adds to the problem by cutting more corners – not reinforcing hillsides as per norms, ignoring original approved blueprint plans, using substandard building materials, not roping in proper experts for activities such as demolition, temporary strengthening during tunnelling, etc – because it allows bigger profits. And, as mentioned, lower-level government inspectors and project supervisors, simply ‘look away’.

Clearly, we need to talk about accountability. Experts have mentioned the absence of an alternate ‘escape route’ at the Silkyara tunnel. The government norm is that tunnels longer than 3 kilometers must have an alternate escape route, for workers or commuters to use in the case of a mishap. The Silkyara tunnel is 4.5 kilometers long, but it has no escape route.

Why?

One wonders whether the builders of Silkyara tunnel, Navayuga Engineering Co., will be asked this question. Or will it be glossed over, like many other key questions?

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Accountability, but Also Justice

It is also worth noting that Navayuga Engineering, was a key stakeholder in another construction project that saw a deadly mishap, as recently as August 2023. 20 workers and engineers died when a crane collapsed on the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Expressway in Thane, Maharashtra. Navayuga Engineering had been given the contract for that chunk of the expressway and had further subcontracted the work to another builder.

Along with accountability, goes justice. In the case of the Uphaar Cinema fire in Delhi, which killed 59 people, many of them children, in 1997, it took our legal system over 20 years to pin blame and figure out the appropriate punishment. Surely that is more a travesty, than justice. It can only embolden the neta-babu-thekedar nexus if the wheels of justice turn so slowly.

In October 2022, 141 people died in the Morbi Bridge collapse in Gujarat. At the time, reports suggested that the bridge had undergone repairs, but was re-opened to the public before a safety audit was conducted by the municipal authorities. Will it take less than 20 years to identify and punish the culprits? We can only hope so.

The families of the 41 trapped workers have cause to be optimistic. A lot of resources have been thrown into the rescue, and top experts have been brought in. We hope they are not only rescued but are also compensated fairly for the trauma they have endured due to no fault of theirs. We hope they are not forgotten when the media moves away.

But to demonstrate that lessons have really been learned, we need to see that our politicians and bureaucrats actually start paying attention to nature, science, and the law. Not once, but again and again. Until we do that, and until we actually pin accountability swiftly and firmly, it will only be a matter of time before we see another Silkyara mishap.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Yeh Jo India Hai Na 

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