Relief, Revelations and Lessons Learnt
The long wait is finally over as 41 workers trapped in the under-construction Silkyara-Barkot tunnel were successfully rescued after 17 days. It was a huge relief not only for the families of the workers but also the nation as a whole, amid delays caused by multiple obstacles faced during the rescue operation and false promises of imminent rescue. The exercise was tedious as well as an unpredictable with the American auger drilling machine facing several technical snags, forcing rat-hole mining experts to dig through the last stretch of rubble blocking the workers. The ordeal was longer than expected but all’s well that ends well. It was a collective effort of several agencies and individuals. Even political parties were together in this amid election fever running high as assembly elections are being held in five states. Politicising the mishap and putting pressure on the rescuers could prove disastrous. In such operations, safety of people in distress is paramount and not meeting timeline. Pressure could put both the trapped workers and the rescuers at risk, as the remaining portion of the tunnel could cave in if the exercise is executed without proper planning. Patients and ceaseless efforts of experts paid off.
While celebrating the success of the rescue operation, the authorities should now shift the focus to investigating the matter and expose the lapses. According to preliminary findings, as revealed by a panel member investigating the incident to the Reuters, the tunnel does not have an emergency exit and was built through a geological fault, known as “shear zone”, which is a thin zone within the Earth’s crust. This is against the government guideline that recommends emergency exits for tunnels measuring more than 1.5 km in length. If this turns out to be true, it is a serious lapse on the part of the implementing agency. Taking stringent action against the defaulters as well as corrective measures is pertinent to avoiding disasters in future. The fact is that the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham Pariyojana (project) in Uttarakhand that aims to connect pilgrimage sites of Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath, is just one of the many tunnels under construction in the Himalayan region. The ongoing Dimapur-Kohima railway project, which has several tunnels measuring 31 km in total, is one of them. While enhancing connectivity is vital for economic growth, ignoring the concerns raised by environmentalists, experts, and the public can prove costly, considering the topography of the region. Infrastructural development projects should be taken up in the Himalayan region, including the Northeast India only after thorough research by experts and with all safety measures in place, as it is prone to earthquakes and other natural calamities. The Silkyara tunnel mishap should serve as a reminder of the need for greater caution while implementing developmental projects in the region.