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Uttarakhand tunnel disaster: 'Question mark' on rescue plan, appraisal, construction

By Bhim Singh Rawat* 

As many as 40 workers were trapped inside Barkot-Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi after a portion of the 4.5 km long, supposedly completed portion of the tunnel, collapsed early morning on Sunday, Nov 12, 2023.
The incident has once again raised several questions over negligence in planning, appraisal and construction, absence of emergency rescue plan, violations of labour laws and environmental norms resulting in this avoidable accident.
As per the PIB release issued on November 13, 2023, the construction of the 4.5 km long tunnel between Barkot and Silkyara at Dharashu bend close to National Highway 134 in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand was taken up by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) in March 2018 at a total cost of Rs 1,383 crore. The two-lane bi-directional tunnel is part of controversial Char Dham Pariyojna (CDP) or All Weather Road Project. It is being built by National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).
The main purpose of the tunnel is to connect Yamnotri and Gangotri valley to facilitate travelling during pilgrim season. Once built, the tunnel passing beneath the Radi pass is to reduce the 25.6 km long road journey to 4.5 km through the tunnel.
To develop the tunnel the NHIDCL in June 2018 signed Rs 853.79 crore contract agreement with Navyuga Engineering Company Limited (NECL) a Hyderabad based company on Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) mode. The construction work started in July 2018 with a completion target of July 2022. As of November 2023, about 56 percent of the total work has been done and completion deadline is extended to May 2024.

The disaster

Around 05:30 am on November 12, 2023, when the 40 workers were carrying reprofiling work between 260 meter and 265 meter inside the tunnel from Silkyara side, about a 55 meter portion between 205 meter to 260 meter collapsed. The portion on the other side of this collapsed portion was still incomplete, so there was no way to get out from the other side.
In a video interview Shashi Chauhan, a mechanic of NHIDCL told the The Indian Express that there were more than 40 workers working in night shift inside the tunnel. The shift was about to end at 08:00 am. Some of the workers managed to come out when the incident happened and about 40 workers were trapped inside. The mechanic further stated that the workers are safe and in contact through walky-talky. They have a free space of about 400 meter and are being supplied oxygen, water and food.
The workers were first contacted in the intervening night of November 12-13, 2023 and rescue operations continued on November 15 and beyond. A worker present at the site during the incident is quoted in Amar Ujala report as saying that they were removing the muck with an excavator and loader when the portion of the tunnel collapsed.
The report further writes that initially the debris fell down slowly which was not taken seriously before the entire tunnel was blocked suddenly. As per the report about 3 to 4 workers managed to save their lives and the rest were trapped inside. Quoting another worker who witnessed the incident, the report mentions that normally 65-70 workers are engaged in a 12 hour long shift and construction work is happening round the clock in two shifts. Apart from NECl, there are three more companies Sri Sai Construction, Nav Durga and PB Chaddha which have employed the workers in the project.
Possible reasons behind the incident
So far, there is no official reasons given, explaining the causes behind the incident. A few media reports have quoted experts citing some possible factors that may be responsible for the incident.
As per Dr Ranjit Kumar Sinha, Secretary, Disaster Management, Uttarakhand, the collapse occurred due to pressure of loose rock materials above the affected portion. “It looks that the affected area is comprised of soft rocks and there is a fault. I am told that rib installation, rock vaulting and primary lining had been done there. Despite that, due to soft rocks and loose materials it collapsed”, Sinha stated while briefing the media persons after inspecting the spot on November 13, 2023. He further stated that treatment of the affected portion would be done but first priority is the rescue operation.
In the Down To Earth report, geologist Naveen Juyal has raised questions over geological and geotechnical surveys of the project. As per him the tunnel location is close to the Main Central Thrust (MCT) and the area is earthquake prone. “If the surveys are conducted sincerely, these facts must have been covered. The question is what precautionary steps the construction company had taken on these facts,” stated Naveen Juyal demanding a through probe in DPR of the report.
The report also quoted scientist Ravi Chopra, who was chairman of the apex court committee to monitor the violations in CDP work stating that geological surveys are essential before starting such projects but these surveys require time as well as money but the governments want to complete the projects with the least amount of money and in shortest time resulting in Silkyara like incident.
“Scientists said the Silkyara tunnel is being built in an area comprising lime rock (sedimentary rock), making it prone to recurrent collapses”, reads The Times of India report. The report further quoted Geologist SP Sati explaining two potential reasons for this collapse. One being the possibility of a blind shear zone that was not previously reported and the other being the use of explosives for tunneling. In another debate program, SP Sati stated that the incident appears to be a result of compromised tunnel construction safety protocols.
Quoting a ‘detailed report’ from NHIDCL, the ANI report says, “On November 12, breaking work was started from Ch 260m to Ch 263m for the next patch of work. Around 5:30 AM, collapse occurred from Ch 205m to 260 meters where re-profiling was completed. 40 workers based on contractor tunnel entry register were trapped inside the tunnel”.
However, when we contacted Shri Prem Chand, DGM, NHIDCL, Dehradun Office for the ‘detailed report’ he stated that there is no such ‘detailed report’ on the issue. We neither found any press release on the issue on NHIDCL website. In fact, Anshu Manish Khalko, Director Admin & Finance, NHIDCL in a video byte to ANI stated that inside terrain is fragile and facing reoccurring collapse.
Questions on probe panel
The state government on November 12, 2023 constituted a six member probe panel from various government department to investigate the reasons behind the incident. The panel is headed by Director, Landslide Mitigation and Management Centre (LMMC), Uttarakhand. The LMMC is set up only a year back as an autonomous body under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.
However, during formation of LMMC, experts had found the body engineer-driven and ignoring the crucial role of geologists. Moreover, the panel is comprised mainly of government departments and lacks any independent expert member and also any representative of labour union.

Careless approach & construction practices

Among the available information, Varun Adhikari, an Engineer Geologist in his brief but comprehensive blog, categorically underlines the troubling trend of poor workmanship and a lax approach to tunneling practices. As per him, the tunnel project was further subcontracted to another agency for excavation and lining from the Silkyara portal.
Expert team carrying out survey at hill top of the tunnel
The blog reveals two crucial points: 
“1. During excavation, the required tunnel profile was not maintained, necessitating reprofiling during secondary lining for final shape and support. 2. Reprofiling during lining was carried out in a haphazard manner, overlooking the rock class in the specific zone and neglecting the proper removal of primary supports with high-impact hydraulic hammering or blasting. This was done without adequately assessing the potential damage to the surrounding rock mass.”
The blog sums up: 
“The collapse at Silkyara is indicative of a classic case of unprofessional tunneling practices and negligence toward essential tunneling principles. It highlights the importance of maintaining diligence in adhering to proper procedures, especially in reprofiling and utilizing hydraulic breakers or minor blasting, with due consideration of the tunnel’s specific conditions and potential consequences on the surrounding rock mass. A comprehensive review of the incident should inform future tunneling projects to prevent a recurrence of such lapses and improve professional conduct.”
Similarly, there are reports suggesting that the excavated portion of the tunnel was not covered with safety ducts and hume pipes were not laid in vulnerable spots inside the tunnel. Colonel Deepak Patil who had till recently worked as General Manager, NHIDCL to develop the project is quoted in a local report stating that he had a plan to use hume pipes at vulnerable spots but no one had realized that something of this scale could happen there. It is worth mentioning that the same potion of tunnel had also faced a small scale collapse in 2019 delaying the construction for some time.

No plan for emergency rescue operation

The entire episode has also highlighted a complete absence proper rescue plan from either NHIDCL or NECL to deal with such emergency situation. Adequate machineries and equipment to carry out the rescue work in swift and efficient manner were not available at the site for initial more than 16 hours.
The rescuers felt the need of a vertical drilling machine which only reached the site from Haridwar late in the night of November 12, 2023. All through the November 13, 2023, the rescue team kept removing the landslide debris and applied shotcrete method to stabilize the affected portion.
Given the constant pouring down of loose rock materials, the vertical drilling machine proved of no help and plan was made to use auger drilling machine to insert 900 mm diameter steel pipes through the rubble to evacuate the trapped workers.
Arranging the machine and the pipes to the site from Dehradun and other places have taken another day. As per the latest development the launch pad for the auger drilling machine has been built by noon on Nov 14 2023 and the machine has started working by 09:00 pm on Tuesday.
However, on Nov 15, 2023 morning, NDTV reported that after the rescue officials had spent hours preparing a platform for the auger drilling machine to insert steel pipes through the rubble, a landslide on Tuesday (November 14) night forced them to dismantle the machine & the platform. In an update, the state disaster response force said that work is on to set up a new drilling machine again.

Migrant workers & native people paying high price

The disaster has also emphasized on the miserable plight of workers engaged in such risky infrastructural projects in a hostile terrain. The incident has occurred on the day of Sunday amid festive Diwali season when people generally are entitled to work offs but the workers in the project were working in a 12 hours long shift.
The construction company had no accurate information about the exact number of workers trapped inside the tunnel as it first stated that 36 workers were trapped but later on the number reached to 40 as shown in a list issued by the administration.
Surprisingly, the 40 workers are mostly migrants belonging to 7 different states including 15 from Jharkhand, 8 from Uttar Pradesh, 5 from Odisha, 4 from Bihar, 3 from West Bengal, 2 from Assam and 1 from Himachal Pradesh. There are only 2 workers among the trapped ones from Uttarakhand, the site of the project.
Some family members of the affected workers have complained that the company did not inform them about the incident in time and they came to know about it through news channels. They also appeared unsatisfied with slow pace of rescue operation. There is no information whether the project workforce is covered under insurance scheme and provided health care facilities and adequate salary.
In the past, local people have accused the construction company for employing migrant workers in large numbers and native people in least number though the project is impacting them most and huge number of Uttarakhand people migrate for work.

Environmental norms violation

The entire All-Weather Road Project has been carried out in gross violation of environmental norms as the government had broken down the 889 km long road widening project into 53 segments to bypass the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory for 100 km long road projects.
The Barkot-Silkyara tunnel is also part of CDP and has gone through no EIA or any other credible environmental scrutiny processes to assess geological and other threats. The work on the tunnel was carried even when the Supreme Court had stayed CDP work in February 2019 until the final judgement.
In the past, the local people have also protested against the project for irresponsible dumping of tunnel muck and excessive blasting work. The construction company has been found dumping the tunnel debris in and around perennial and seasonal streams of Yamuna River in the region severely impacting the drinking and irrigational water supply.
The local people have also accused the company for conducting blasting work during night hours in a geologically sensitive and wildlife rich areas resulting in drying up of water springs and making human habitations vulnerable to disaster.

Some recent tunnel accidents

The Barkot-Silkyara tunnel disaster has only added into the list of tunnel accidents that have taken place in the Uttarakhand in recent past be it for road, railways or hydro power projects.
Only last week, 44 workers had narrow escape after a fire broke out inside the under-construction railway tunnel at Nagrasu in Rudraprayag district in the evening of November 05, 2023. The tunnel is being built by Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) for Rishikesh-Karanprayag railway project.
Before this, about 114 workers were rescued after the under-construction railway tunnel was flooded at Shivpuri, Srinagar on August 14, 2023. The tunnel is part of Rishikesh-Karanprayag railway project and being developed by Larsen & Tubro company. The workers were trapped in chest deep water 300 meter inside the Edit-2 tunnel of the project.
Early in August 2023, the state govt set up an expert panel to examine the water leakage problem inside the Tambakhani tunnel on the Gangotri NH in Uttarkashi. In September 2023, questions on construction quality of the tunnel were raised after seepage occurred inside the tunnel for several days throughout August 2023.
Interestingly, the 370-metre-long tunnel was built costing around Rs 13 crore and since its construction 10 years ago, more than Rs 15 crore has been spent on the lining and drainage work inside the tunnel but huge quantities of water continue to leak from the tunnel walls. Same month the approach road of Chamba tunnel faced land subsidence activity near Guldi village in Tehri after a gap of about two years.
Similarly, the Tapovan-Vishnugad HEP tunnel has been affected by seepages since 2009 and the flooding of the tunnel & the project during February 2021 Chamoli disaster resulted in death of over a hundred workers.
---
With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Source: sandrp.in

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