Uttarakhand: 40 Trapped for Over 48 Hours Under Collapsed Tunnel

Rescuers are trying to clear a 40-metre escape channel.

New Delhi: Forty workers are still trapped in a tunnel which collapsed on the morning of November 12 in Uttarakhand as rescue efforts continue today, November 14.

A portion of an under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway gave away during a landslide, trapping the workers. The incident took place in the Uttarkashi district. The collapsed stretch, it has been reported, is around 200 metres.

Authorities told BBC that they established contact with the trapped men on Sunday night using walkie-talkies.

Officials, reported NDTV, said that around 21 metres have been removed as part of efforts to create a 40-metre escape passage. Pipes  will be pushed through this passage so that the workers can squeeze through them. “They have a buffer of around 400 metres to walk and breathe,” an official told NDTV.

Hindustan Times has reported that the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited has said that auger drilling machines will be employed to drill this tunnel.

The tunnel under construction where the workers have been trapped since Sunday is part of the union government’s ambitious and controversial Char Dham road project under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. The Project aims to widen around 900 km of existing national highways that connect several Hindu pilgrimage sites in the state of Uttarakhand including Badrinath and Kedarnath, up to the Indo-Tibet border.

The Union government has cited both national security concerns and improving tourist footfall and amenities as reasons for converting the existing highways into double-laned, 12-14 meter-wide roads with a paved shoulder configuration for 674 km till the border.

Experts, however, have raised several concerns regarding the Project. These pertain to the geological stability of the mountain range, the impacts of the expansion on the state’s fragile mountain ecology and the environment (due to the cutting of hills and deforestation), and the subsequent impacts – such as landslides – that the construction for the wider highway will have on local communities. In early January this year, for instance, the town of Joshimath – a hill town in the state near which one segment of the Char Dham road project passes – faced land subsidence, or the sinking of land which caused cracks to develop on houses and other buildings in the town. Experts had said that ground drilling and the use of explosives for the Char Dham highway project were also among the factors that destabilized the town.

The project proponents broke up the ~900 km project into more than 50 separate ones to circumnavigate the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment of the project. Though a high-powered committee was formed to advise the government on the project’s environmental impacts, its recommendations were not taken into consideration and the chairman of the committee resigned in protest in February this year.