Did official apathy create the Silkyara tunnel incident?

Tuesday, 21 November 2023 | PNS | DEHRADUN

On the ninth day of the operation to rescue the workers stranded in the Silkyara tunnel since November 12, the authorities made little progress on Monday. As in such cases, this rescue operation also poses challenges but many are questioning whether this is a man-made catastrophe caused by the negligence of government officials and the apathy towards basic scientific principles to be considered when undertaking infrastructure projects in the fragile Himalayas. Experts are questioning whether the government was asleep when the plan for this project was passed and its execution began, while citing aspects like questions being raised at fragile rock strata and the absence of an escape tunnel in the Silkyara project.

The 4,531 metre long Silkyara tunnel being constructed under the Radi Pass area is to join the Gangotri and Yamunotri axis at a cost of Rs 853.79 crore under the ambitious Char Dham all-weather road project. Geologists, scientists and environmentalists have been stating since the start of the all-weather road project that landslides have increased along the roads since the execution of the project began.

Founder of Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) and Padma Bhushan recipient Anil Prakash Joshi states that the Silkyara incident appears to be a lapse by the construction company. The work in the mountains is slower and different than work in the plains. It is necessary to consider the geological features of the fragile Himalayas and climate change while taking up infrastructure development. He said that construction work in the mountains is being done just like the work in the plains and this must be looked into. “We need infrastructure development in our mountains but it has to factor in the geological aspect of the terrain and the impact of climate change which is now a reality,” Joshi said. He added that sustainable development has to keep science at the heart of all planning and execution.

Geologist at HNB Garhwal Central University, MPS Bisht said that whenever taking up such massive engineering work it is of vital importance to conduct thorough geotechnical and geophysical mapping of the specific rock on which the tunnel is to be constructed. The exercise is a must before any infrastructure project in the mountains. While the work is on, one has to keep up and track the safety measures consistently. “The rock conditions vary so geophysical mapping gives details of the rock quality across the mountain. The load-bearing capacity of the mountain rocks is also to be looked at before taking up such projects. For sustainable development, the prescribed checks and set norms have to be strictly followed to avoid any loss in the future,” Bisht said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephonic conversation with Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Monday. The PM sought information about the current status of the rescue operation. International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association president Arnold Dix also reached Silkyara on Monday to assist in the rescue effort. While the authorities focus on six options to rescue the 41 workers stranded in the tunnel since November 12, many are questioning the apathy of the government machinery which according to some experts may be behind the Silkyara tunnel incident. 

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