After a strenuous 17-day effort, rescuers successfully liberated all 41 workers who were trapped in a collapsed tunnel in Uttarakhand, prompting celebration. The focus has now shifted to probing the causes of the collapse and understanding the factors contributing to the extended rescue operation.
The 41 workers were freed on the previous day, concluding a intricate operation that enlisted multiple agencies, drilling machines, and rat miners—a profession currently prohibited in India.
Despite the American drilling machine \’auger\’ managing to horizontally penetrate nearly three-quarters of the debris, the final segment required manual drilling following a machine malfunction. A group of a dozen rat miners, adept at navigating confined spaces, was then engaged to finalize the rescue operation.
Situated approximately 30 km from Uttarkashi, the Silkyara tunnel is a vital component of the central government\’s Char Dham all-weather road project, spanning 889 kilometers across the fragile Himalayan terrain. Oversight of the tunnel construction falls under the purview of the Hyderabad-based Navayuga Engineering Company Limited, a firm with previous experience in similar projects.
The collapse occurred on November 12, trapping laborers inside the tunnel. Now that the workers are safe, attention turns to scrutinizing the factors behind the collapse. The incident underscores the perils associated with large-scale development in the seismic and landslide-prone mountainous region.
While major projects typically undergo Environmental Impact Assessments, the Silkyara Tunnel was exempt due to its division into segments smaller than 100 km each. In 2019, the Supreme Court tasked an expert panel with proposing risk mitigation options. The committee identified various issues, issuing warnings about the soil composition and its potential to heighten the risk of landslides and flash floods in Uttarakhand.
The government has announced that the National Highways Authority of India will conduct an audit of the 29 tunnels currently under construction across the country. Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari stressed the necessity of a safety audit for the tunnel, recognizing the unique challenges posed by the fragile Himalayan strata and expressing a commitment to finding technological solutions.