By P.K. Balachandran/Daily News
Colombo, November 30: There is no gainsaying that the success of the nerve-wracking but successful effort to rescue 41 Indian workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand in the Himalayan foothills deserves high praise. But at the same time, the wisdom of digging tunnels in the Himalayan region needs to be seriously questioned, environmentalists and geologists say.
Tunnel and even road projects in this region where the mountains are of recent origin and therefore susceptible to landslides, need to be considered with a cool head, without being unduly influenced by considerations of national security or religious tourism or political one-upmanship.
Experts have repeatedly warned that the geological conditions in the Lesser Himalayan Range (LHR) are unsuited for such developmental work and that unless projects are scientifically and geologically sound and the needed precautions are taken, disasters of this sort cannot be ruled out.
For the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel, it was a 17-day unimaginable ordeal. The workers got trapped on November 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5 km tunnel to collapse about 200 meters from the entrance. The US-made Auger machines bored through about 47 meters out of approximately the 57-60 meters needed before they broke down completely.
The machine’s blades struck obstacles and sustained damage every two or three feet. Each time they struck an obstacle, they had to be pulled back 50 meters, repaired and sent back causing delays of several hours each day.
Finally, the machines were withdrawn and a manual digging method called “rat hole mining” was resorted to. The name comes from its resemblance to rats burrowing pits into the ground. The pits are sized just enough for the workers to descend using ropes or ladders to extract coal, often without safety measures and proper ventilation.
The trapped workers were supplied with hot meals through a 15-centimeter pipe after days of surviving only on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. They were getting oxygen through a separate pipe. There were more than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists at the site, monitoring their health. Finally, they were taken out through a welded 90 cm-wide steel tube by using wheeled stretchers.
The tunnel the workers were building was part of the US$ 1. 5 billion Chardham all-weather 890 km road project which will connect a number of popular Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan region. The road and the tunnels envisaged would reduce travel time and make travel less arduous.
But according to experts, this flagship initiative of the BJP Government to promote Hindu religious tourism and also to facilitate the movement of troops in case of Chinese aggression, will exacerbate the already fragile conditions in the Himalayas.
In 2023, the Himalayan region has been witness to a series of disasters, from the sinking of Joshimath in Uttarakhand, to floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, a glacial lake outburst in Sikkim, and the just-seen tunnel collapse in Silkyara in Uttarakhand.
The prevailing development model of the Himalayas, spanning from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, poses a significant threat to the ecosystem of the mountains, writes senior environmentalist Vimalendu Jha in The Hindu.
He dubs the Char Dham National Highway Project as “infamous” and says that it shows critical mistakes and assumptions in its planning and implementation. The LHR in which Uttarakhand is situated consists of mountains, which have a more recent origin in geological time. This makes them inherently susceptible to landslides.
“The project has navigated a legal labyrinth by manipulating and altering laws to facilitate its progress. A token environmental assessment was conducted but not the one mandated for a project of this scale, as on the books it is not a single project but 53 small ones. This reflects a systemic failure in ensuring compliance with environmental norms.”
“The Government also used old forest clearances given to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) from 2002 to 2012, and the work started immediately on almost one-fourth of the stretch.”
“The fact that several stretches of this highway fall under eco-sensitive zones—such as Rajaji National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, and many more—indicates that the Government either changed the land use of the areas or falsely declared that the highway route was outside the Zones. A project that aims to destroy 600 hectares of Himalayan forest is granted a go-ahead without any adequate scientific scrutiny or public debate,” Jha points out.
“While a two-lane highway may appear advantageous in theory, on this terrain it translates into incessant landslides, deforestation, and a relentless assault on the region’s delicate ecosystem. A High Powered Committee (HPC) was appointed by the Supreme Court in 2019 to assess the potential environmental and social damage caused by the proposed project and to recommend measures to mitigate the impact. Despite strong recommendations and observations made by several members of the HPC, the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, allowed the project in its original scale and methodology—a 12 metre road with a 10 m tarred surface—in complete defiance of the majority view of the committee,” Jha recalls.
“The extreme slope cutting, reaching up to 45 degrees, by removing the vegetal cover that is the natural protection against landslides, has been undertaken since then, leading to an average of one landslide a day in the last couple of years.”
“The biggest casualty of the project is the rich Himalayan flora and fauna. It proposes and mostly has cleared approximately 600 hectares of forest land.” Forests offer a degree of protection from landslides.
Parallel to this pet project is another major project – the 372-km-long Char Dham Railway project, estimated to cost Rs.75,000 crore (US$ 9 billion). This involves the construction of dozens of tunnels, ignoring the geology of the region.
Several experts attribute the sinking of Joshimath to the incessant digging of tunnels in the region, along with the hydroelectric power plants that have plundered the mountains, Jha charges.