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Never thought we’d use our skills to save lives: ‘Rat-hole miners’ recall Uttarkashi tunnel op | Delhi News


“Majdoor ki majboori hai,” said Mohammad Irshad Ansari when asked about working through 12 metres of debris from within a narrow pipeline to free 41 miners trapped on the other side.

Ansari is one of six men — part of a larger team of 12 ‘rat-hole miners’ who played a crucial role in rescuing the trapped workers from the collapsed Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarkashi — who returned to Northeast Delhi’s Karawal Nagar Thursday morning.

Even though they are used to working inside pipelines and other narrow surfaces, the circumstances and challenges this time were vastly different from their previous assignments. After all, there were people on the other side, trapped for 17 days, waiting to be rescued. Plus, the terrain was unfamiliar.

One of the rescuers, Naseem Malik, 36, said, “We had asked for 36 hours, but managed to do it in 26 hours. We had to get into the pipe, and normally, this is a few days’ work. In Delhi, we deal more with mud, not rock, while working with water and sewer lines. There, there was hard rock.”

Malik has been doing similar work for over a decade, having started out after accompanying others from the colony to their worksites and gradually picking up the job.

Festive offer

As residents of Sri Ram Colony greeted the six workers with flowers and drum beats, Ansari, 45, said, “We are insignificant people, but we have been given so much respect today and we are grateful for that. The Chief Minister (of Uttarakhand) has congratulated us on our work. This is the first time in our lives that something like this has happened to us, and in more than 20 years of doing this work, I never thought we would ever be able to use our skills to save lives…”

Ruing the fact that few think about the hard work that goes into building the tunnels, Ansari said, “The majdoor gets left behind. I started working in 2001 and would get paid Rs 70 to Rs 100 per day for this work. Now, we get around Rs 500 to Rs 600 for eight hours of work. There is no training involved here, we get better with experience.”

Having moved to Loni in Ghaziabad two years ago, Ansari has one wish — to upgrade his house. “We have applied for the government scheme that gives money to build a home. If the papers are passed, and we get that money, our house will be better,” he said.

Despite not sleeping for “three days”, the men, exhausted and bleary-eyed, met visitors at home and accepted garlands from local political party leaders.

Feroze Qureshi, 34, said, “We left from here last Thursday. In the end, it was 26 hours of continuous work. We stopped to eat, but on the final day, we were only engaged in getting them (the miners) out. Our team worked together and nobody was ready to accept defeat. We had to somehow cross this hurdle and save 41 lives… even the others who were there with the machines, the officials, they also had faith in us that we would be able to get the workers out.”

How did they do it?

Explaining the process deployed in the final leg of the rescue operation, Qureshi said, “We refer to this work as ‘jack pushing’. It could be a little like how a rat digs a tunnel, pushing the mud behind it and clearing the way. There are times when in an entire day, we may be able to clear only a metre, or even half a metre. We work across the country, we’ve worked in Maharashtra before for sanitation projects with civic agencies. This is the first rescue, but we didn’t think too much about it.”

Malik’s brother, Mohammad Usman, also in his 30s, said he used to do similar work but quit to take up a job as a mason. “There are others in the colony who do this for other contractors,” said Usman, whose family is from Muzaffarnagar in UP, and moved to Karawal Nagar nearly three decades ago.

At Malik’s home, which he shares with 12 to 13 other family members, his wife Sameena, 36, said this was the biggest risk he had taken. “He has travelled outside for work before. But this time, we were scared too,” she said.

With the welcomes out of the way, Munna Qureshi, 33, said he was looking forward to spending time with his children. “I can’t tell you how happy I am. Those who got out are even happier. It was very difficult work, but we didn’t feel like it was. We were in high spirits at the time. We know they are workers, and we battled the stones and metal. Work that would usually take days had to be done in 26 hours,” said Qureshi, who has been doing similar work for 15 years, and whose family is originally from Kasganj in UP.

“It was a difficult operation since the stones had to be cleared, and working inside the pipe was difficult,” said Mohammad Rashid, 35, who was also part of the team.

The other six members were from Bulandshahr in UP, while Vaqeel Hasan, who owns Rockwell Enterprises, the company with whom the workers were engaged, is also from the Karawal Nagar area.





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