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Unanswered questions, while 41 lives remain trapped

Posted in Featured, View Point

Published on December 04, 2023 with No Comments

41 workers remain trapped inside the Barkot-Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi, India since November 12th. An ordeal which is beyond comprehension. No words can express the tension and turmoil that these 41 workers are undergoing and the same is true for their near and dear ones. With each passing day, the hope to bring them out is fast turning into despair.

Strategy A, plan B, alternative plan are some of the terms that the Indians have heard and read over the days, despite the fact that on November 18, a delegation headed by the prime minister Narendra Modi’s former advisor Bhaskar Khulbe reviewed the situation on the ground, even as the government last week promised that “all coordinated efforts” were being made to “evacuate the stranded workforce”. Still the results are elusive.

The ordeal for the workers began in the early hours of November 12, when a portion of the tunnel – currently under construction as part of Uttarakhand’s Char Dham Mahamarg Pariyojana – collapsed. The Char Dham Mahamarg Pariyojana is the Uttarakhand government’s dream all-weather highway project, inaugurated in December 2016 at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. The Barkot-Silkyara tunnel project was announced in 2018 – a 4.5 km, two-lane, bi-directional tunnel that would reduce the distance between Gangotri and Yamunotri by almost 20 km. At a cost of Rs 1,383 crore, the tunnel was expected to cut down travel time for pilgrims by 45 minutes. The construction of the tunnel continued in the region amidst the growing calls to relocate people from the hill town of Joshimath, that gained momentum in January 2023. Experts had then warned that the sinking of the house, hills in the town of Joshimath is not a lone event. Just like Joshimath, several other towns in the foothills of the Himalayas are vulnerable to ground subsidence. Land subsidence has proved to be one of the biggest overlooked environmental consequences as human-led activity increases without any regard for the geology of the local region. Many towns in the state of Uttrakhand were declared unsafe in the state, though the experts called the rampant construction including the tunnels as the chief reason; the governments preferred to ignore the same. There is hardly any solution visible with the land underneath moving because of weak foundation and enhanced erosion due to the incessant rainfall and floods in the recent past.

Though construction companies never accept the use explosives in their work, however the resident near such projects have seen and experienced the horrors so associated with the blasting of the rocks and mountains. In this case too, the major jerk as ultimate trigger for the collapse of the tunnel can’t be ruled out.

Also, the rescuers are still looking for an answer as Why didn’t the tunnel have an escape route? Crucially, when the government sanctioned the tunnel project in February 2018, it clearly stated that it would include an “escape passage”. Tunnels are now an integral part of road, railway, and hydropower projects around the world. However, given that the Himalayas are an ecologically sensitive region, due care is imperative.  India is using the same technology being used the world over but in India, the engagement of specific experts is not happening adequately.  Such projects do need the expertise of geologists. But often contractors with no knowledge carry out the work. They are usually only concerned about their costs and that’s where the problem starts. Also, in most of the cases, the length of the tunnel is the major concern, however the design of the shape and diameter -whether it a circular tunnel or horseshoe shaped are seldom evaluated. Do such contractors monitor how the rock mass behaves? Do they evaluate whether it is stable or not? Do they evaluate whether the diameter of the tunnel is same or is squeezing? Are they conscious of the tools being deployed are consummate with the rock geology?

These are some of the questions that the governments in India need to consider in the light of those 41 workers who remain trapped since Nov 12.



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