The nation heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday night when 41 rescued workers emerged safely from the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarkhand, after being trapped for 17 days. It was a harrowing time not just for these workers and their families, but also for the crew of rescue workers, engineers, officials and the political leadership involved in the rescue process.
Finally, the humble rat-hole mining technique, which as the term suggests entails rodent-like digging with the use of simple tools (a hazardous method used to mine coal, now banned), managed to cut through the obstinate lumps of iron in the debris and carve out a passage for the exit of the workers. The drilling machines couldn’t break past tangled metal that had fallen into the tunnel along with soft debris, about 270 m away from the Silkyara side. The rescue brings to the fore India’s skills in pulling off nail-biting rescue operations, involving accidents or natural calamities where people end up being stranded for days. The collective rescue effort — involving a range of Central ministries (besides the PMO) from Road Transport and Highways to the Railways, the Armed Forces, para military forces, State governments and district officials, disaster management experts at the Centre and States, health personnel and ordinary people — was commendable as an exercise in coordinated decision-making and execution.
These are not qualities associated with a government set-up. However, the bane of this country is that it acts after a catastrophe, instead of having preventive systems in place. Accidents arising out of negligence occur from time to time because due process is not observed in execution of a project. The latter, in turn, persists because mishaps are not investigated thoroughly, with the culpable being brought to book and processes accordingly reviewed. It is to be hoped that an inquiry into the Silkyara-Barakot tunnel collapse uncovers all aspects. A judicial probe might help to establish accountability. Going by the accounts of some geologists and engineers, there have been lapses in the execution of the 4.5 km long tunnel project. Reports of the work of excavation and lining from the Silkyara side having been sub-contracted need to be probed.
The absence of an escape route appears to be a violation of norms. It seems that during excavation the required tunnel profile was not maintained. This necessitated reprofiling, which may have been done without regard for the rock type in the accident zone. There are concerns over whether this tunnel, which will connect the Gangotri and Yamunotri valleys as part of the Char Dham project once it is complete, will be safe for all vehicles — given the fragile geology of the Himalayas. The Char Dham project must be environmentally reviewed to minimise damage arising from landslides, floods and earthquakes. But first, lapses in tunnel execution, as indeed in the EPC contract, must be dug out, as it were.