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The Silkyara Tunnel Collapse Reminds Us Exactly How Contentious the Char Dham Project Is

One of the main concerns of the tunnel was its width. It is part of the Char Dham project’s 'non-strategic stretch'.

Nainital: The Silkyara tunnel, in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district, has been in the news since November 12, when one of its under-construction sections collapsed, trapping 41 workers. They were rescued on November 28 after several attempts by regional, national, and international agencies, and individuals, especially “rat-hole” miners.

Despite the successful rescue operation, it is essential to understand the contentions regarding the larger Char Dham Pariyojana, or project, of which the 4.53-kilometre-long tunnel being constructed between Silkyara and Barkot is a part. This is because many Char Dham project-related violations also reflect in the alleged laxity that guided the work at Silkyara, which resulted in the tunnel collapse.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways’ (MoRTH) Char Dham project involves widening of 825 kilometres of national highways in Uttarakhand. 

A study of committee reports, complaints against the project, submissions in the Supreme Court, and various court orders, reveals a lack of transparency from MoRTH and other involved agencies. The division of the project into 53 smaller parts to evade environmental impact assessment (EIA), the illegalities committed with respect to tree-felling and muck disposal, and the unscientific hill-cutting that resulted in several landslides and deaths over the past years have all made news.

Experts told The Wire that several construction norms were overlooked in the building of the Silkyara tunnel too, including the construction of an escape passage.

An unscientific, ill-conceived, political project

On December 27, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the project’s foundation stone. On the day, Modi, who was in Dehradun to address an election rally ahead of the 2017 Uttarakhand assembly polls, dedicated the project to the victims of June 2013 floods that had claimed over 4,000 lives. The promise was that a road network for pilgrims, which was resilient to disasters, would be built.

The Rs 12,000-crore project would provide wide roads leading to the four shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri. The Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route’s Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch would also be widened.

However, widening the existing road network for 825 kilometres in the Himalaya, that too unscientifically, would have environmental and social impacts, felt members of Citizens for Green Doon – a Dehradun-based civil society group – and others. They first approached the National Green Tribunal in February 2018, and then the Supreme Court in October 2018. 

On August 8, 2019, the court gave directions for the formation of a High Powered Committee (HPC) to review the project and give recommendations to minimise its impacts. By then, several project stretches were already under construction.

Ravi Chopra, an environmental scientist and a development activist who was appointed the HPC chairman, mentioned in the committee’s report submitted to the court in July 2020: “We encountered several landslides….Slope failures and muck dumped directly downhill into forests, river beds, and waterways were documented. Thousands of trees had been felled already and many more rolled down after unanticipated slope failures. Weak protective walls had left high, vertical slopes to their own fate.”

Moreover, neither MoRTH nor other agencies involved in the project were ready to share the information required by the HPC for a thorough appraisal, Chopra said in the report.

Even as the HPC assessment was ongoing, in violation of the Supreme Court order, MoRTH, which was in a hurry to complete the project, had begun work on fresh stretches where construction was not allowed prior to the committee’s assessment.

None of the committee members objected to the project, but there was a divide between them over road width. While the HPC chairman and four other members argued for roads with 5.5-metre-wide carriageway and 1.5-metre-raised footpath to minimise the project’s adverse impacts, 13 members argued for a double-lane carriageway of 7 metres and additional 1.5-metre paved shoulders on both sides (that is, total 10 metres of tarred surface), also called a double lane with paved shoulder or DL-PS configuration.

Minority members’ argument for a 5.5-metre carriageway was backed by MoRTH’s March 23, 2018 circular that narrowed down the national highways’ width in the hills to minimise adverse impacts from cutting hills for roads. Majority members, on the other hand, argued for wide, DL-PS roads, based on MoRTH’s old circular of October 5, 2012. 

2018 MoRTH Circular by The Wire on Scribd

Over the past years, Uttarakhand has been facing the wrath of extreme rains and floods that have damaged the state’s infrastructure, especially roads and bridges. Minority members’ argument was that hill-cutting for wider roads would destabilise the mountains, making them more disaster-prone. 

The members were right. A research paper, which is currently under review for the ‘Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences’ journal, found over 300 landslides along the 250-kilometre-long national highway between Rishikesh and Joshimath in the year 2022. This stretch has witnessed excessive hill-cutting works under the Char Dham project. Also, according to the HPC report, in the two years following April 2018, at least 21 persons were either killed or had gone missing in landslides associated with the project.

Supporting the view of the minority HPC members, on September 8, 2020, the Supreme Court gave directions to construct roads with a 5.5-metre carriageway.

Soon after the order, the Ministry of Defence intervened in the matter. In an application filed in the Supreme Court on November 27, 2020, it sought permission for double-lane roads with a 7-metre tarred surface for 674 kilometres. These roads would lead to the Indo-China border. The application was “in the interest of the security of the nation and for the defence of its borders”.

On December 15, 2020, MoRTH modified its 2018 circular to allow DL-PS roads for strategically important hill stretches, after which, on January 15, 2021, the defence ministry filed an affidavit in the court, stating the need for 10-metre-wide strategic roads.

2020 MoRTH Circular by The Wire on Scribd

Environmentalist and HPC member Hemant Dhyani said, “Initially, the defence ministry had asked for 7-metre-wide roads. However, after MoRTH’s modified circular the ministry asked for even wider, 10-metre roads.”

Speaking to the author in December 2021, retired Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the army’s northern command, and Ajai Shukla, a defence and strategic affairs analyst who is a former colonel in the army, had said that not just the road width, but the entire road design, including the turns, bridges and culverts had to be designed for defence vehicles.

However, the project was not designed based on any defence-specific requirements, said Dhyani, adding that the defence ministry intervened in the case “only to serve MoRTH’s agenda for DL-PS roads”.

Also read: The SC-Backed Wider, Landslide-Prone Uttarakhand Roads Won’t Serve Defence Needs

Considering the ‘national security’ argument, on December 14, 2021, the Supreme Court allowed the 674-kilometre roads that lead to the Indo-China border to be widened based on DL-PS configuration. The court also paved the way for the Union government to widen the remaining 151-kilometre non-strategic roads by pursuing “appropriate legal proceedings”.

Citing the disregard for minority HPC members’ views for narrower, disaster-resilient roads, and the unscientific methods employed in the project to expedite work, which created many new landslide zones, Chopra, then HPC chairman, resigned from his post on January 27, 2022.

Silkyara tunnel: Violations and construction malpractices?

In February 2018, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, with Modi as its chair, gave the approval for the Silkyara tunnel. The implementation work was given to the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), which in turn engaged the Hyderabad-based Navayuga Engineering Company Limited for construction.

Dhyani said that one of the main contentions regarding the Silkyara tunnel was its width. The tunnel, which falls on Yamunotri national highway, is over 12 metres wide. It is part of the Char Dham project’s non-strategic stretch, he said.

“Tunnelling for a larger width would require more explosives, which would impact the area’s stability. Even the excavated material for a larger tunnel would be more, requiring a larger muck disposal area,” Dhyani said.

The tunnel collapse incident is especially disconcerting since the region is unstable, and essential tunnelling norms were not followed during construction, experts said. 

An expert who was present at the tunnel site during the rescue operation, said, on the condition of anonymity, that several construction norms were overlooked to expedite project work and achieve faster completion.

Tunnelling in the Himalayan region could be fundamentally challenging. Geologist Navin Juyal, former HPC member, said, “If you’re tunnelling in the Himalaya, you’re in for two surprises – water and shear zones. Thorough geo-hydrological investigations, and critical geological and geotechnical evaluations are required to understand such challenges.”

Showing the lack of such studies in the tunnel project, a recent statement from BERNARD Gruppe, a German-Austrian engineering services company working on tunnel design and construction for Navayuga, mentioned that “the geological conditions have proved to be more challenging than predicted in the tender documents”.

An escape passage that could be used to exit the tunnel in times of emergency was part of the project. However, it was never built.

Responding to queries regarding lack of escape passage, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, who was recently at Silkyara, said that since such passages are hardly used in India or internationally, its construction might have been avoided in the Silkyara-Barkot project.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), said that a thorough EIA would have ensured proper geological studies, muck disposal plans, and the construction of the escape passage. However, the EIA was not done.

In response to queries, NHIDCL authorities from their Dehradun office said that the tunnel design included a wall that would pass through the tunnel’s centre, dividing it into two, allowing either side to be used as an escape passage during an emergency. However, such a separation wall would only be built once the tunnel construction is complete.

The area in the tunnel that collapsed on November 12 is part of a shear zone that comprises rock mass of poor quality, said geologist S. P. Sati from the College of Forestry at Ranichauri in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal.

The Silkyara-Barkot area is close to the Main Central Thrust (MCT) – a major geological fault zone in the Himalaya. Another fault – the Barkot Thrust – is also close to this highly sheared terrain. This, according to geologist Charu C. Pant, means that the rock mass in the tunnelled region has witnessed major movement in the past, as a result of which it is highly deformed. 

Pant said, “The Silkyara-Barkot area comprises low-grade metamorphic rocks, which are highly foliated. The area has shear zones, where rocks are crushed and weakened by natural forces, and are in a state of instability.”

However, this does not mean that a tunnel as long and wide as Silkyara must not have been built in the region. If tunnelling norms are meticulously followed for construction, such tunnels could prove to be less damaging than cutting hills for wide roads and destabilising them, experts said.

In Silkyara, considering that the tunnel was passing through poor rock mass, appropriate support should have been provided for such zones, said engineering geologist Pramod C. Nawani, a former Geological Survey of India (GSI) director. “Considering the length and width of the tunnel, work should have only been done under the supervision of an engineering geologist, and not any contractor,” Nawani said. 

It is currently unclear whether an engineering geologist was constantly supervising tunnelling work. Also, the lapses that led to the collapse are currently being studied. However, a November 13 post on LinkedIn by engineering geologist Varun Adhikari, who was among the experts involved in planning the rescue operation, shed some light on the issue. “The collapse at Silkyara exemplifies a situation where substandard tunneling practices and negligence toward fundamental tunneling principles led to the incident,” the post said.

The Wire emailed Navayuga, NHIDCL, and MoRTH for clarity regarding the alleged lapses in tunnel construction. The NHIDCL responded and the contents of its response were added to the piece. The article will be updated if and when the other two bodies respond.

It appears that the construction methods used were also impacting those who live near the tunnel. A letter from April 2019 written by the residents of village Paulgaon near the tunnel’s Barkot end, which was addressed to the Uttarkashi District Magistrate, mentioned about the threat from the use of explosives.

“The use of explosives in the tunnel is a threat to forest land, wildlife, and villagers’ lands and houses,” the letter said.

While blasts were used for tunnelling, they were executed “in a controlled” way, NHIDCL authorities said in their emailed response to The Wire. They added that the tunnel was being constructed by using the required support measures, and following safety norms based on the existing Indian Roads Congress (IRC) guidelines.

After the November 12 incident, demands to take action against the agencies involved in the construction work have become rife, and the extent of Navayuga’s accountability is brought up often.

Indresh Maikhuri, Uttarakhand state secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation), said, “A criminal negligence case must be registered against NHIDCL and Navayuga for the tunnel collapse.

Navayuga was involved in the Samruddhi Expressway project work in Maharashtra where about 20 people were killed in August this year. The company is also constructing parts of Rail Vikas Nigam Limited’s (RVNL) 125-kilometre Rishikesh-Karnaprayag railway line in Uttarakhand, which has 17 tunnels spread across 105 kilometres.

“Our demand is that RVNL’s contract with Navayuga for the Rishikesh-Karnaprayag railway project is cancelled,” Maikhuri said.

Kavita Upadhyay is an independent journalist and researcher from Uttarakhand, who writes on the environmental issues in the Indian Himalayan Region. She posts on X @Upadhyay_Cavita.

This article was updated with the NHIDCL’s response on January 14, 2024.