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How – and why – we are rescuing the trapped workers in Uttarakhand

Earlier, in India, fatalities during disasters were taken in stride, without generating the passion needed to bring the nation together to save the lives at stake. As against that, what is on display at the Silkyara Tunnel in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand is a revolution of sorts. A focused effort by a plethora of government and private agencies is underway, exploiting advances in technology, communication and transportation. With coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the National Disaster Management Authority, and the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), in an integrated “all of government” approach, efforts are on to save the precious lives of 41 workers stuck inside a partially collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas. None of those stuck in the tunnel have the reach or status to influence decisions. Yet, every leader and official has their welfare, and that of their families, in mind.

There is a mini-India among those stuck in the partial collapse of the under-construction tunnel at Radi Pass on the Gangotri-Yamunotri axis in Uttarkashi district. Representatives of different states, they are hardy and industrious people who are taking the nation forward with their labour. The government has assumed the responsibility to ensure that there is enough sensitivity and adequate information about the ongoing rescue efforts.

There are tunnels under construction all over the Himalayas. These are necessary for better logistics, sustainability and the economies of the regions they serve. Without progress in this domain, India’s far-flung areas will continue to suffer, as they did in earlier times. India has some of the best institutions that study Himalayan geology and the methods of construction of roads and tunnels in the terrain there. As the nation grows and its economy expands exponentially, such infrastructure will be the basis on which the development of remote areas will be ensured.

However, the Himalayas are young fold mountains, and their geology is not exactly a precise science. Aberrations may therefore occur and the collapse of excavated portions of tunnels could pose serious challenges. That has happened at Silkyara and the incident is now proving to be an intense challenge for rescuers and technological teams representing some of the most modern companies in the nation.

The government’s search for advanced excavating and drilling equipment has been met by a rush of volunteerism, both from the public and private sectors. The Indian Railways is doing a superb job, transporting individual parts of equipment and machinery weighing as much as 75 tons as over-dimension cargo. Equipment moving by road has been provided green corridors while the Indian Air Force is committing its huge logistics lift capability to every demand for additional equipment. Online consultation with international experts has been done extensively and at least three-four of them have arrived on the spot to bring every bit of their experience to the effort.

Festive offer
tunnel 5 rescue options on the table.

What is the time frame in which the rescue will be executed? This is the question asked by every media representative and it is a fair one. Yet, what we need to remember is that like in anti-terrorist operations or attack operations of war, it is the imponderables that dictate everything. By placing timelines, the risk could only be enhanced. This is an operation in which both the rescuers and the “to be rescued” are at almost equal risk: We have to mitigate that risk, not enhance it. Yet, facts must be laid out — about the 41 workers and their physical and mental state, and the status of the rescue effort.

Contrary to the common perception, now corrected through better communication to the media, the 41 workers are not inside a mine, a darkened chamber or a highly enclosed space. From the collapsed portion blocking their exit, it is 2,000 metres to the unbored exit towards the direction of Barkot (the other end of the tunnel), thus ruling out claustrophobia. The collapsed earth spared the electric cable and conduit, so there is light inside. Similarly, a four-inch-thick compressor pipe remained live and connected to a high-pressure compressor — it has ensured pumping in of fresh air. Small supplies for emergency or survival rations and medicines of the vitamin and antidepressant variety have been pumped in by pressure through the approximately 65 metre-long pipeline. This pipeline, which has acted as a lifeline, is now supplemented by another six-inch pipeline. Through the latter, some cooked food items and a colonoscopy video probe have been inducted, revealing the safety and well-being of all workers. The government has also focused on psycho-social impacts as some workers may be unduly traumatised by the experience. Honouring this need, the Uttarakhand SDMA has provided three psycho-social specialists at the site and arrangements have been made to augment that strength as soon as the rescue is imminent. The workers will be taken to a medical facility in Dehradun after an initial medical checkup. Both family and worker welfare have been sensitively handled.

To enable early rescue, the principle of simultaneity is being followed. Five approaches are being attempted with time frames for completion from between five-six days to eight weeks. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the placement of the machinery, some of which is under transportation. The risk factor and the Himalayan geology are significant impediments. Considering all these, two methods remain the most viable. First, the horizontal approach from outside the collapsed portion. An auger is in use — it consists of a rotating metal shaft with a blade at the end that scrapes or cuts the debris and the earth with a limited diameter; 900 mm in this case.

Twenty-two metres of this was successfully negotiated until geological impediments were encountered. This effort is being restarted on priority and its success lies the greatest hope, 32 metres having been successfully negotiated. Simultaneously, drift technology is being employed to scrape the sides of the tunnel and increase its size to create access. Top and side boring attacks on the tunnel alignment will commence in due course and will provide the required redundancy.

Finally, when so many competent agencies are working together the most important task is to enable convergence of capability. Leadership from New Delhi is ensuring this as we await the safe return of 41 sons of India.

The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is member of the National Disaster Management Authority

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