Analysis: Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse – Makings Of A Disaster

The lives of 40 workers trapped in a tunnel in Uttarakhand hang precariously as their families wait outside with hopes and prayers. Since the Silkyara tunnel collapsed on November 12, the government has been trying to drill through the debris to rescue workers trapped 200 metres from the opening.

The 4.5-km tunnel is being constructed between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri portion of the National Highway as part of the Char Dham road scheme. The project, launched in December 2016, aims to improve connectivity between four pilgrimage sites called the Char Dham – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri – through an 889-km road. The project has been controversial since the start with environmentalists fearing the heavy drilling and construction was causing subsidence, landslides and heavy environmental damage in the vulnerable Himalayan region.

The Char Dham project, being built at the cost of Rs 12,500 crore, was supposed to widen roads in the region, keeping in mind sufficient slope protection needs. The project was challenged in 2018 for its perilous impact on the Himalayan ecology. Ecological experts and environmentalists, in a petition before the Supreme Court, had raised concerns about impending environmental disasters like flooding and landslides due to the destruction of ecosystems for infrastructure projects.

Explaining the persistent manmade disasters in the Himalayas, Himanshu Thakker, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People said a proper study and assessment of risks involved, resources, geology and safety of the project was critical.

“Without proper study, geological surprises will come up. Cost overruns, missing timelines, safety related incidents are bound to happen. There is no culture of due diligence before initiating such projects in our country. Cost is borne by someone else. Safety risks are borne by workers, mostly migrants from other states. Damage to the local environment, residents bear it. Developers, Contractors don’t face any adverse cost impact,” Mr Thakker said.

“The culture of accountability and consequence is absent in India. There is no governance. There are no lessons learnt from previous disasters, which can be used as a benchmark for future projects.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court formed a high-powered committee to address environmental concerns of the project. However, there was a disagreement among the committee members on the width of the hill roads and in July 2020, two reports were submitted to the top court. The Supreme Court, in September 2020, went by the recommendation that the carriageway width should be limited to 5.5 metres in the precarious terrain. The central government challenged the ruling citing national interest and argued that the road should be developed as a two-lane with paved shoulders and a width of 10 m. Eventually, the Supreme Court on 14 December 2021 allowed the double-lane paved shoulder configuration for the Char Dham road project.

The 10-metre width was a breach of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways circular of 2018, which had advised against building full-fledged roads cutting across the Himalayan slopes and prescribed a width of not more than 5.5 metre.

In protest, environmentalist Ravi Chopra resigned as the chairman of the Supreme Court appointed committee last year, citing concerns over the 2021 judgment “allowing the widening of 674 km of roads leading to the India-China border to 10 metres”. Experts pointed out that a 10-metre tarred road requires widening up to 12 metres and cutting mountains until 24 metres, leading to more damage to the forest and the environment. However, there is another school of thought that believes development can’t be held hostage to resistance from ‘influential and partisan lobbies’.  

Even by following every protocol, there is never a foolproof way to avoid a collapse of a tunnel being constructed. In terms of geologists, the Himalayan terrain is a new geology because it is still squeezing, which causes uncertainty and chances of sudden collapses.

“Even after all possible safety precautions, due diligence, seismic and geo technical studies, tunnel collapse while under construction may still occur. Water streaming may go unnoticed and fill the tunnel leading to tunnel collapse. In the Himalayan terrain, seismic activities, improper dumping of muck, particularly around the tunnel project are some of the reasons for such accidents,” explains Ravi Shankar Vantaram, an international environmentalist.

The number of natural disasters in the region has surged since 2010. The Kedarnath disaster in 2013; repeated monsoon floods and landslides have been unprecedented, with thousands of lives lost. Pilgrims face relentless traffic disruptions caused by cracks appearing on the Kedarnath and Badrinath Highways. The locals are the worst sufferers. They want the region to flourish economically but the collateral damage is great.

In Rudraprayag, earlier this year, there were numerous incidents of cracks emerging in houses and on roads, driving residents out of their homes. A case of land subsidence was also reported in Joshimath. People held protests against the National Thermal Power Corporation’s 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric project as the underground tunnel was passing near this hill town.

China is building roads and helipads on its side leading to recent security challenges for India on the Indo-China border. The government has been stressing on the strategic importance of double-lane roads for swift movement of the armed forces. For development and power security, hydel projects are also necessary. “In Uttarakhand, dam projects for hydro power generation are in progress and they are necessary for the country’s development. There are repercussions, which go hand-in-hand with development, and we need to face them as well. The government can’t be blamed for initiating developmental projects whether in seismic zones like the Himalayas or elsewhere. At the most proper safety precautions can be taken,” says Dr Vantaram.

The loss of lives and the social impact hurts the nation. Development needs to be sustainable with the least impact to the environment, keeping the safety of workers paramount. Due diligence must be done by a team of independent experts before a project starts. The government should prioritise development, but not at the cost of creating ecological imbalances, endangering the lives of people engaged in the projects or locals living in the region.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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