Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: Efforts on to rescue 40 trapped workers

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Fears of environmentalists of disasters in Himalayan region due to infrastructure development should act as warnings

Rescue operation underway at the under-construction tunnel that partially collapsed in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, November 11, 2023. Photograph: ANI on X

NEW DELHI: At least 40 workers are still trapped inside following collapse of an under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state of India, on Sunday morning.

According to official reports reaching the National Capital said that the rescue teams were supplying oxygen to the trapped workers inside the collapsed tunnel.

Rescue workers from the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force and police launched a search and rescue operation immediately after being informed of the accident, Superintendent of Police (Uttarkashi) Arpan Yaduvanshi was quoting as saying by the news agencies.

Quoting officials working with the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, which is building the tunnel, Yaduvanshi had initially put the number of labourers trapped in the tunnel at 36.

However, the District Emergency Operation Centre later released a list of 40 labourers trapped inside.

Most of the construction workers are from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

Oxygen is being pumped into the collapsed section of the tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham all-weather road project, through a water pipe so that the trapped labourers do not have difficulty breathing, Yaduvanshi was quoted as saying.

The rescue operation has been going on for the past 36 hours but without any breakthrough so far.

However, those trapped inside have sent out signals that indicate they are safe, an official at the site was quoted as saying.

“We are removing the muck to measure how deep the point where they are trapped is. It does not seem too long. We hope to reach them soon. However, there are indications that they are safe as they appear to have released some water through an outlet,” Rajesh Panwar, the Navyuga Construction Company project manager, was quoted as speaking to some newspersons.

About 160 rescuers are trying to reach the trapped labourers with the help of drilling equipment, excavators and heavy machinery, the District Emergency Operation Centre said.

Border Roads Organisation and Indo-Tibetan Border Police teams led by Commanding Officer Naman Narula and Assistant Commandant Jadhav Vaibhav were roped in later to assist the rescue efforts, the officials were quoted as saying.

Uttarkashi District Magistrate Abhishek Ruhela, National Highways Authority of India chief general manager Vishal Gupta and NDRF Second-in-Command Ravishankar Badhani are on the spot to supervise the search and rescue operation.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami spoke to Ruhela for an update on the situation and asked him to speed up the rescue operation.

Ruhela has cancelled the Diwali holiday of employees in the departments concerned.

“I am in touch with the officials on the spot and constantly monitoring the situation. I have asked them to expedite the rescue efforts. I pray everyone is rescued safely,” Dhami said in a post on Facebook.

According to Yaduvanshi, the incident occurred between 6.00 and 7.00 AM on Sunday.

The collapsed portion of the tunnel is located about 200 metres from the entrance, he said, adding food items are also being sent in and the workers will be rescued soon.

On the circumstances that led to the collapse, he said the priority is to save the lives of those trapped inside.

“What led to the incident, fixing responsibility, etc will come later. Saving the lives of those trapped inside is our first priority,” Yaduvanshi said.

The proposed tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham road project, will reduce the journey from Uttarkashi to Yamunotri by 26 kilometres.

J&K Tunnel Collapse: Accidents in Himlayan region

At least ten persons killed when huge landslides struck an under-construction tunnel near Ramban on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway on May 21, 2022.

J&K L-G Manoj Sinha had announced an ex-gratia of Rs One Lakh each from the relief fund besides Ramban Deputy Commissioner announced payment of Rs 15 lakh each as compensation to the families of the workers, who died in the tragedy, on the directions of the L-G.

The May, 2022 accident involving collapse of a tunnel due to landslides or other reasons was one of the many accidents that have taken place during the construction of tunnels for the National Highway Project and extension of the Railway Line Project to Kashmir Valley from Jammu. The construction on both the projects is still continuing.

At that time, doubts were raised over the skill and knowledge of the contractors engaged in the construction of the tunnels in Pir Panjal region of Jammu and Kashmir. Some unconfirmed reports suggested that at some places on the highway, which is being four-laned, work has been sublet by the executing agency to such contractors who have very little technical knowledge about constructing roads and tunnels in such terrains.

Prone to landslide

The stretch where the incident occurred in Ramban has become a death trap for commuters as several mishaps have taken place here due to shooting stones. Cutting of mountains and carving out of tunnels has been a source of worry for the environmentalists, who have been opposing such projects in the young mountainous region.

Boulders rolling down the unstable hills and landslides have hindered the Ramban rescue operation several times.