The operation to rescue about 35 workers trapped inside a 2.5 km NTPC hydel project tunnel in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand continued on Tuesday, while the death toll in the aftermath of what Union Home Minister Amit Shah, described in Parliament as a snow avalanche, rose to 32. More than 197 people, including the trapped labourers, are still missing.
“It is observed from the satellite data (Planet Lab) of February 7, 2021, in the catchment of the Rishi Ganga river — at the terminus of the glacier at an altitude of 5,600 metres — a landslide triggered a snow avalanche covering approximately 14-sq.km area and causing a flash flood in the downstream of Rishi Ganga river,” Mr. Shah told Parliament.
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He said the avalanche led to a sudden rise in the water level that triggered a flash flood, destroying the functional Rishi Ganga small hydro project of 13.2 MW and also affecting the under construction 520 MW NTPC hydro-power project, downstream at Tapovan on the Dhauli Ganga river.
While 12 persons were rescued by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel from a small tunnel at the NTPC project site, 15 were saved at the Rishi Ganga project on Sunday. Four more bodies were found close to the Rishi Ganga project site on Tuesday morning.
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The rescue work in the longer Tapovan tunnel is under way. An ITBP official said a 60-metre patch filled with sludge and debris had to be cleared before they could establish contact with the trapped workers.
“The tunnel is up to 15 feet high and the height of the debris is 13-14 feet. We have cleared up to 120 metres so far. It is this 60 metres that is proving to be extremely challenging to clear. There is a gap beyond this mound where this tunnel meets the other and we are hopeful of finding the trapped people there,” the official said.
The official said no contact had been established with the workers so far. “We are hopeful because beyond 60 metres, we do not expect any debris. The more debris we are extricating, the more of it is flowing out on its own,” he said.
Another official said: “Some people working here have told us that they had complained of the tunnel getting inundated in the past but no action was taken. The floor is marshy, making it difficult to walk. Only heavy vehicles and machines can extricate the debris.”
An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was also flown into the tunnel to collect clues but it did not get enough headroom for manoeuvring.
The Home Minister earlier said that the State government had announced an ex-gratia of ₹4 lakh each for the next of kin of those who lost their lives. The restoration work of five completely damaged bridges had been initiated by the Public Works Department and the Border Road Organisation.
As Raini bridge was also washed away, cutting off 13 villages, relief material is being provided to the stranded villagers through helicopters. The State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) has built a temporary rope-way to restore essential supplies to the nearby Raini village. Debris is also being removed from the houses of area residents.
Control rooms have been set up at the State and Centre level to monitor the ongoing search, rescue and relief operations by joint teams comprising the Army, ITBP, NDRF and SDRF personnel. Besides, a Sashastra Seema Bal team and a Navy diving unit have been deployed. Five Air Force helicopters, apart from those being used by the State administration, have been engaged. Several medical teams with ambulances have also been stationed.
Mr. Shah said Uttarakhand was allocated ₹1,041 crore under the State Disaster Risk Management Fund in 2020-21 and that the first instalment of the central share amounting to ₹468.50 crore had been released.