Silkyara tunnel collapse | Trapped in the Himalayas

The 41 workers, who were sealed into an under-construction tunnel they were building to ease the journey of pilgrims to Uttarkashi’s Yamunotri shrine in Uttarakhand, remain in its gloomy darkness, with just two pipes as lifelines for food and communication. After almost two weeks, authorities are hopeful that their evacuation is just hours away — again, report Aroon Deep and Ishita Mishra.

November 25, 2023 04:02 am | Updated 09:40 am IST

Workers who escaped the tunnel collapse have been roped into the rescue efforts.

Workers who escaped the tunnel collapse have been roped into the rescue efforts. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

At the site of the Silkyara-Bend-Barkot-Tunnel collapse, 600-800 people swarm around a mountain already burdened with construction material and the fervour of 7.6 lakh pilgrims headed to Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna river in Uttarakhand. Over 56 lakh people travelled to the four holy shrines — Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath — as part of the Char Dham Yatra this year.

It is 14°C in the afternoon, at about 1,100 metres, and above sea level, all that’s available by way of food is chawal and a watery dal, eggs, aloo paratha, and Maggi, India’s ubiquitous hill station staple. But the rescuers, workers, journalists, and villagers who have come to watch the operations don’t complain. Inside the tunnel, they know that 41 men lived only on dry food — puffed rice and nuts — for nine days, until a pipe 15cm in diameter was pushed through the rubble, and some warm khichdi passed down in bottles.

A whole convoy of ambulances has been lined up at the construction site, for the 41 men stuck in the tunnel would very likely need considerable medical attention as soon as they are rescued.

A whole convoy of ambulances has been lined up at the construction site, for the 41 men stuck in the tunnel would very likely need considerable medical attention as soon as they are rescued. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

On November 12, the Sunday India woke up to celebrate Deepavali and the yearly Char Dham yatra was closed to the public for winter, construction workers were trapped about 60 metres into the tunnel they were building, due to a landslide. On one side was the debris and on the other, the mighty mountain through which men and machines were boring. They were extending National Highway 134, cutting short the travel distance from Dharasu to Yamunotri by about 20 km and travel time by about an hour.

The trapped men had just about 2 kilometres of space to walk about, sleep, eat, and perform ablutions. Communication was established with them on Deepavali night through walkie-talkies. A 10-cm-diameter pipeline — earlier used to supply water and feed electric wires into the two-lane tunnel that was to be 4.531 km — became the workers’ lifeline, delivering air, water and food.

For five days after, authorities — chiefly the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), Uttarakhand police, and National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. (NHIDCL) — threw around plans, carefully crafting them to the media as Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. They put the number of men trapped within at 40. It was only five days later on November 17 that NHIDCL — the agency building the tunnel at a cost of ₹853.79 crore, using the services of Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd — revealed it was 41.

Navigating the anxiety

As the magnitude of the collapse dawned on the authorities, relatives were slowly notified. Naiyyar Ahmad woke up at 5:30 a.m. that Sunday morning, a habit from years of work in the construction industry. While his current project was in Siliguri, he was home for Deepavali vacation at Peur village in Bihar, a two-hour drive from Patna. He didn’t know until a couple of hours later that a cousin he had grown up with had just been sealed behind the rubble of the under-construction tunnel. Naiyyar had worked for Navayuga Engineering for 10 years. His cousin, Sabah Ahmad, joined within a month of his hiring, in 2009.

First visuals of trapped workers

“People here recognise me,” he said, watching the rescue operations outside the tunnel from a hostel overlooking it, on November 19, referring to workers and foremen on site. A week had passed since his cousin was trapped. His former colleagues called him before many other family members of the trapped workers knew what had happened. Naiyyar, who was due back that night to work on a railway tunnel, called his manager in Siliguri, and got on a general compartment train to Uttarakhand, reaching the site 30 long hours later.

The few relatives who began gathering at the site looked on with the worry of family members outside an operation theatre. Here, the surgery was being performed on a mountain.

At first, two American machines were flown in from Delhi to drill through the mass of muck and metal between the trapped workers and a crowd of hard-hat-clad rescuers and bureaucrats. The machines drilled to push a 900 mm pipe horizontally through the 60 metres of rubble and let the workers crawl to their escape. That had been Plan A, which was briefly halted on November 17 after the effort led to rubble rain within the tunnel. A giant Jack-and-push-earth auger machine developed a snag.

Plan B entailed bringing a new machine from Indore, which arrived the next day. Engineers cautiously restarted drilling. This too hit blocks. Plan C was to create a concrete canopy overhead to prevent the rubble from dislodging any further but this would take many weeks.

The trapped workers were getting anxious — a week had passed, and the machine had stopped drilling. One day, a trapped worker yelled through the supply pipe, “Kuch kar bhi rahe ho (are you doing anything at all)?”

After a week, officials decided that it was now time to start drilling into the tunnel from all the other sides – they offered five options: the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam would drill a hole from the top, NHIDCL would continue from the mouth of the tunnel, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited would drill from the left, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation would try another vertical hole towards Silkyara, and the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation would blast through the other end of the mountain.

Each day, rescuers ran into more and more obstacles, as more rubble fell while they drilled. Families grew impatient. Officials were telling loved ones that the workers would be out in a day or two, always with the caveat: if all went well. All did not go well, and days passed. Rescuers kept up the drilling work and a series of Ministers, senior officials, and army vehicles showed up at the site every day.

Officials were projecting the might of the entire State being thrown at the mountain. The scene at the grey construction site was a spectacular display of all the machinery and human labour summoned to chip away at first, the construction itself, and then, at the mountain. The families saw something else: that all these cranes and convoys were not able to get their loved ones out.

As the various plans began to unfold, Bhaskar Khulbe, a former advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office and the officer on special duty for the Uttarakhand government, said on the site, “We don’t want one team to worry about what the others are doing.” This took some of the heat away from the third auger machine’s setback. The progress was still 22 metres, just a third of the entire passageway.

Naiyyar was constantly talking to Sabah by yelling through the pipe that survived the rubble. He played back a muffled recording of Sabah responding to his yells. “He is married with three children, four, five, and six,” he said of his cousin. “They don’t know what is happening. His four-year-old tells me each time I call my sister-in-law, ‘Uncle, please put Papa on the phone.’ I say, ‘Beta, Papa is at work right now’.”

Scientists and supernatural believers

The collapse was not uncharacteristic. On the winding highway up from Rishikesh to Silkyara, the mountains are fragile, as are man-made constructions on them. Piles of rocks, abandoned bricks, and plumes of dust cover the steep roads, remnants of devastating landslides and markers of human hyperactivity. Piles of stones are netted up and placed against cliff sides to prevent more loose sand and rock from falling.

Entire mountain faces and hillsides look like they have been cut in half, with the deep roots of plants and trees — once hidden beneath the earth — standing exposed. Construction dust and woodfire smoke fill the air, turning the late night’s chilly fog into a smoky haze.

This was not the first time a crisis like this had happened in the hill State. Hence, the State government was quick to form a team of technical experts under the director, Uttarakhand Mitigation and Management Centre, to study the causes of the Silkyara tunnel collapse. The team included experts from institutions like Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Geological Survey of India (GSI), and Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), among others.

Environmentalists, who were part of the Supreme Court-appointed 2019 high-powered committee on the 825-km Char Dham all-weather road project, took this opportunity to criticise the government once again for going ahead with it, even after they had raised ecological concerns. “The authorities are responsible for this incident,” said geologist, Navin Juyal, adding that the young Himalayan range was fragile, with many generations of “folds and fractures” and a high water content. The head of the committee, environmentalist Ravi Chopra, had resigned in protest in 2022.

Villagers, feeling helpless, took out a procession with Baukhnaag Devta, a local deity considered the region’s guardian. They arrived on site and said god had perpetuated the crisis. A local priest said that the construction company had drilled a portion of the mountain where the temple of the deity was.

A pandit offers prayers next to the collapsed tunnel in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district on November 21, 2023.

A pandit offers prayers next to the collapsed tunnel in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district on November 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Respecting the beliefs of locals, officials and workers at the rescue site erected a small makeshift temple outside the tunnel where prayers started every day, to bring the workers back to safety.

Workers worry

Near Navayuga Engineering’s field office, workers crowded around police officers and company representatives. “Such a huge incident has happened, sir. Shouldn’t the [Navayuga] owner be here?” asked one worker. Police officers insisted that the government was doing all it could, trying to mollify the crowd. “Think logically, can we leave the workers in there when all these VIPs are coming and the whole country is watching,” one police officer asked a crowd around him. Two Union Ministers, Gen. V.K. Singh and Nitin Gadkari, showed up; one of them had a red carpet laid out for him.

Soon, experts in Thailand, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. had been consulted online, but they slowly started showing up on the site. Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, came on-site wearing workers’ overalls. Dix posed for the camera, sounding upbeat and optimistic. He sometimes offered prayers at the small shrine set up next to the tunnel.

Brajkishor Bediya, 21, started working at the tunnel six months ago. On November 12, he was on the night shift team with the workers who are now trapped inside. “At 5:30 a.m., the rubble had started falling,” he said from his workmen’s quarters, filled with beds and thick blankets for the cold winter nights. Bediya is from Jharkhand, and three of the trapped workers are from the same State, all his relatives, he says. “If they had used the walkie-talkie to tell everyone to get out when the rubble started falling, everyone would be safe today,” he said. Outside the quarters, workers were engaged in heated arguments with police officers and company representatives, furious about the delays.

Bediya started working on the site after a stint driving a tractor at a farm, for which he had been paid ₹20,000 a month. While his pay on the site was the same, he was able to save more, as his meals and stay were taken care of by the firm. He gets two days of leave each month, both Sundays. His parents are farmers in their 50s. “They’re probably planting potatoes now,” he said. A day after Bediya spoke about the incident, on November 19, he was himself enlisted in the rescue effort, as were other workers who were in their quarters.

Keeping pace

On Tuesday, November 21, the horizontal drilling picked up pace. The villagers said it was all because the temple of the deity had been constructed. Rescue agencies said it was their sheer hard work that had led to the breakthrough. They were able to drill the pipe up to 45 metres. Expectations were raised and promises were made that the workers would be able to see the light of day on November 22. On late Wednesday evening, iron girders came in the auger’s way, halting the operations for 20 hours.

By November 23, the auger again drilled another few metres. However, by then, the pipe inserted through the debris for 48 metres began to bend. It took the entire night for the rescue teams to realise that they need to build a platform to establish the pipes and machine.

After facing a series of demotivating hurdles, it was on Fridaymorning when the rescue teams also used the ground penetration technique to find if there was another hurdle in the next five metres of their drilling journey.

Meanwhile, at one of the few tea shops near the collapsed tunnel, conversations continued about the men in the tunnel — they speak of one man who has been in two previous natural disasters, another who had lost his brother at a different construction site, and three cousins who don’t know that two of their relatives have lost their lives in a road accident.

“We do not fear anything in the hills. When there is a calamity, we come together and support each other. That’s the only way of living,” says Dharam Singh Jayada, who runs a tea stall, about 300 metres away from the tunnel. The ambulances wait for the men to be rescued.

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