“It was a God-sent mission to to us rescue the 41 labourers trapped inside the collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand,” said Irshad Ansari, one of the ‘rat hole’ miners who was involved in the nerve- breaking rescue operations that lasted for nearly 27 hours.

“We were not worried about our families but about the 41 trapped labourers and their families,” he told businessline on his visit to Chennai along with four others in the team.

Ordinary people doing extraordinary feats is the story of the 12 ‘rat hole’ miners who braved their own lives. On November 12, 2023, a collapse occurred in the under-construction tunnel from Silkyara to Barkot caused by debris cascading across a 60-meter span on the Silkyara side. After 17 days, all of them were rescued safely from Silkyara Tunnel by the 12-member ‘rat hole’ miners.

Rat hole mining is largely prevalent in Meghalaya, particularly West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills and West Khasi Hills. It involves manually digging up small tunnels, around 3-4 feet, through which workers enter and extract coal. 

All the 12 ‘rat hole’ miners are neighbours in Delhi. Until the rescue mission, their routine jobs were in laying pipelines for railways and in the highways. In 2021, the team was involved in a project in Dehradun, and the contractor was called by the government to be part of the rescue mission, he added.

“The whole nation was watching the rescue mission. Our families and friends told us not to go as it was too risky. However, we told them that anyway life has to go one day and the rescue was important as the entire nation was looking at this,” said Munna Qureshi, who along with his brother Firoz Qureshi entered the mission.

No prior training

The Delhi-based Rockwell Enterprises handled the final tunnel excavation. Five of the 12 miners along with the company’s Vaqeel Hasan were in the city to receive the ALERT Being ICON Award at the 7th edition of ALERT Being Awards organised by ALERT, a Chennai-based voluntary non-profit organisation dedicated to making the ‘Right of Life’ a reality in India. R Seshasayee, Chairman, Asian Paints, presented the award to them. The ALERT Being Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Ratan N Tata (in absentia).

Naseem Malik, one of the 12 members, said the team did not have any prior training in such works. “We just prayed before entering and the rest is history. With a hand drilling machine and chisel in hand, the team drilled for nearly 27 hours before reaching out to the 41 members, who received us with tears in their eyes.”

Malik recounts that it was a very risky job as the soil was wet and the wall kept breaking now and then. However, the team did not lose hope and kept doing the job. “We prayed before entering and kept in mind that over a billion people were glued on to their mobiles and television and waiting to hear the good news of all of them getting rescued,” he said. “Some of us were unwell during the rescue operations. But that did not deter us from carrying out our task. We hardly ate anything during the mission,” he added.

While awards are pouring in for the ‘rat hole’ miners across the country, their wish is to get government jobs. “Hope Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji will fulfil our wish,” they said.