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Uttarkashi Tunnel Op: There's No Denying That Uttarakhand is in Dire Straits

The Himalayas are time and again giving us warnings, which we seem to be ignoring, repeatedly, at our own peril.

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The safe extrication of the 41 miners trapped in the Silkyara tunnel for 17 days finally ended the national anxiety and despair, as well as the relentless media coverage. The collapse site, about 200 metres from the entrance, ended up trapping excavation workers behind 57 meters of debris, leading to a phased, multi-agency, government-concerted rescue effort which eventually proved successful.

Being constructed by M/s Navayuga Engineering Construction Limited (NECL), the collapse of a section of this tunnel situated at the Silkyara Bend-Barkot site in Uttarkashi in the state of Uttarakhand generated a lot of buzz owing to the environmentally-fragile conditions under which it was built as well as the location where it is placed.

The tunnel is part of the Rs 12,000 crore project and 890-km-long Char Dham Mahamarg Pariyojana (CMP).

While the CMP aims to connect the key sites of the Hindu pilgrimage (Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath) with- a dual-laned road, this 4.5 km long tunnel on National Highway 134 is intended to connect Dharasu on the Southern end to Yamunotri on the North side, thereby, shortening the travel distance from 25.6 km to 4.5 km, and reducing the travel time from 50 minutes to 5.
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Key Lessons To Be Imbibed

Much has been written on the rescue operation that was conducted on a war footing. However, it is imperative to dig deep to assess the infrastructural collapse of the tunnel from a close lens and understand some of the hard-learned lessons from the complex rescue procedure:

Exceptional Synergy – “Whole-of-the-Government Approach”:  According to International Tunnelling Expert Arnold Dix, whose services were utilised in the Great Rescue, this was the "toughest" tunnel rescue operation he has ever encountered not only on account of technical reasons but because there have been no casualties. Usually, coordination and turf issues are a systemic problem when more than one agency is involved in any major operation.

But in this particular case, not only were multiple agencies involved in the rescue effort, but they were also sharing organisational wisdom and resources, with the Indian Air Force, the Army, and Indian Railways being actively involved in the transportation and timely delivery of various technical assets by air, rail, and road.

Overall, it is the constant oversight by the PMO, as well as the zeal of everyone involved to achieve a successful outcome, that led to seamless work coordination and consequent synergy in that multi-dimensional, multi-agency, exemplary rescue operation.  

Safety Norms Ignored:  Ignoring safety norms in both minor and major projects is a regular feature in India – and the price for this is invariably paid by the workers, most of whom are not covered for medical treatment, disability, etc. In this particular case, two issues stand out.

One, that the company (NECL) involved in the construction of this project, does not have an impeccable record – when just three months earlier, it was booked for the death of about 20 workers in the collapse of a section of the Samruddhi Expressway (between Mumbai and Nagpur).

And two, it did not build the mandatory escape shaft(s) at Silkyara for emergency evacuation of workers. This was in spite of the project being executed amidst mountains that are young, seismically very active, and prone to landslides and rockfalls. Bernard Gruppe, a German-Austrian engineering consultancy hired by NECL, had, in August stated that since "the start of tunnel driving, the geological conditions have proved to be more challenging than predicted in the tender document".

Hence, it’s truly puzzling why an “escape passage” approved for the tunnel in February 2018 by Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had not been built until the tunnel had collapsed, and more importantly, why no one has ever bothered to point at this inexcusable lapse – or, who should now be held accountable for the cost incurred by the national exchequer on this rescue? 
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Bypassing of Environmental Norms: In 2018, an NGO filed a challenge against the CMP claiming that the project was being built without requisite environmental, forest, and wildlife clearance and that it was exceeding the prescribed maximum width of 5.5 meters for roads in hilly areas. The Supreme Court-appointed High-Powered Committee, had, in its report of September 2020, inter alia, deemed the project as "ill-conceived" and "unscientific", and recommended the road width be limited to 5.5 meters, except at some strategic locations.

The Central government rejected the report and filed an affidavit seeking permission to widen the roads to 10 meters on the grounds that the narrower roads would compromise the safety of pilgrims and army movement.

In Dec 2021, the Supreme Court allowed the government to widen the roads to 10 meters in three stretches, viz, Rishikesh-Mana, Rishikesh-Gangotri, and Tanakpur-Pithoragarh. The government also avoided an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the 890-km-long CMP by splitting the project into segments of less than 100 km.
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The Way Forward To Prevent Such Mishaps

Although the CMP is a highly emotive project, we perhaps need to deliberate upon two elemental issues:

  • Travel to a remotely-located religious shrine has traditionally been premised as a person’s personal penance as well as reflection on one’s life from the spiritual point of view. I have walked twice to the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine through the Pahalgam-Chandanwari route – and the long, calming walk did allow me to introspect thus. So, do good roads, on which people can drive right up to a shrine, while at times perhaps, even hearing irreligious music, impinge on that very private, personal journey to seek the blessings of one’s Gods? 

  • It's time the authorities started to give environmental and geological clearances due importance. While India surely needs better infrastructure, it cannot be that zero-sum game of either development or the environment.

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According to official data, over 1,000 landslides have hit Uttarakhand this year – which we glibly dismiss as attributable to climate-change-related rains. Earlier, Joshimath, en route to the CMP, witnessed cracks in numerous homes and streets. In addition, there are glacier bursts and catastrophic flooding in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in Feb 2021.

In sum: the Himalayas are time and again giving us warnings, which we seem to be ignoring repeatedly, at the peril of those who live there, work there, or travel through. If we continue to ignore those warnings, nature will surely extract a cost.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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