Uttarkashi Road Tunnel collapse has many lessons for the authorities

A thorough review of Infra Projects in Western Himalayas is urgent

By D. Raghunandan

The 17-day long trauma of the 41 mostly migrant workers trapped inside a collapsed road tunnel in Silkyara, Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand state, is finally over. It has taken days of efforts by multiple agencies, public and private companies, foreign experts, engineers from the army, other workers, a battery of large and complex machines flown in by the air force from different parts of the country, and many ad hoc decisions and different methods of clearing the over 60 metres of debris blocking the tunnel, to finally effect the rescue.

A fleet of ambulances, one for each of the trapped workers, were standing by at the tunnel site to take the workers after preliminary examination at a field hospital set up on the spot to the nearby Chinyalisaur District Hospital where special facilities had been arranged to provide necessary care. All this was partly as abundant precaution in case of serious injury or ailment, even though telephone conversations and other communications with all the workers over the past few days had established that all were unharmed and physically well.

The relief at the happy outcome and the present celebratory atmosphere should not, however, lead to authorities at all levels pretending that all is well and proceeding with infrastructure development in the fragile Himalayan region in a -as-usual mode. The collapse could have been a huge tragedy but for sheer luck that it occurred at the front end of the tunnel.

One wishes that the same coordinated effort by different agencies, respecting the professional capabilities and of different domain experts, had also been displayed while approving and implementing the construction of the now notorious 900 km long Char Dham Highway project of which this tunnel is a part. During the rescue operations, technical experts of different agencies and the NDRF on the spot had highlighted various difficulties being faced due to the terrain at the tunnel site.

They noted that fresh debris kept falling even as the giant auger drilling machine was operating due to the loose nature of the surrounding hills; that operations of heavy machinery, including the vertical drilling from the top of the tunnel, were risky because of vibrations that could trigger a fresh collapse or landslides, and so on. But these were the very factors, among others, that various experts, geologists, and local community and peoples organisations have been emphasizing right from the inception of the project about the dangers of inappropriate techniques for road-widening, slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling and dumping of debris into rivers below, in the young and fragile Himalayan mountainous region.

These very factors have resulted in, or exacerbated, a series of increasingly frequent disasters in the western Himalayas. The numerous recurrent landslides causing blockage of or serious damage to the very “all-” highway, the disastrous flooding and total destruction of the Tapovan-Vishnugarh hydro-electric project, the subsidence of Joshimath town, a crucial gateway to pilgrimage spots in the Char Dham circuit, all point to poor planning, lack of concern regarding the geological and geo-technical vulnerabilities of the Himalayan region, arrogant disregard of environmental regulations, and ignoring the fundamental principle of carrying capacity of the hills, roads, towns and pilgrimage sites.

One cannot forget that the central government deliberately split up the 900km highway project into 53 smaller stretches so as to escape from having to undertake Environmental Impact Assessment, rigged the composition and hence opinion of the Supreme Court appointed expert committee to examine the project, and finally played the trump card of “ security” to compel the SC into granting approval for widening of the highway.

In the aftermath of this latest near-tragedy, it is imperative that a comprehensive and independent review be undertaken of all infrastructure projects in the western Himalayas, and the carrying capacity of all pilgrimage centres, hill stations and other towns in the region. Appropriate technical codes should be developed for all construction works and effective mechanisms should be put in place to monitor and enforce these regulations. Without such measures, the intended “development” of the region will turn out to be a recipe for disaster. (IPA Service)