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More Options En Route For Rescue Work After Earlier Attempts Fail; Workers Protest at Tunnel Site

Union minister of state General V.K. Singh told reporters that the rescue operation could take two to three more days.
The mouth of the tunnel in Uttarakhand. Photo: X/@Delhiite_

New Delhi: On Wednesday (November 15), a specialised drill machine was flown in to hasten the ongoing operation to rescue 40 workers who have been trapped in an under-construction tunnel in Uttarakhand since Sunday, per latest reports. 

According to officials, the machine can bore through debris faster than the previous one that was being used. On November 16, authorities also said that yet another machine for the rescue work was also en route, the Indian Express reported.

However, General V.K. Singh, minister of state for road transport and highways and civil aviation, told reporters on Thursday that the rescue work will take another two or three days.

The workers are trapped in roughly 50 metres of debris after a part of the tunnel on the Silkyara-Dandalgaon stretch (which is part of the Union government’s ambitious Char Dham project) in which they were working caved in on Sunday morning.

Authorities have been able to establish contact with the trapped workers and are supplying them with food, water and oxygen. 

However, on Wednesday morning, workers outside the tunnel who had been following the rescue operation of their colleagues protested against the slow pace of the rescue work, reported the Hindustan Times.

Meanwhile, falling debris is also hampering rescue efforts, an official told Reuters on Wednesday.

New machine employed for rescue work

A specialised drilling machine was flown in from New Delhi to hasten the ongoing rescue operation, authorities said on Thursday. Per reports, it was flown in on Wednesday after attempts to drill through the debris using another machine failed. 

Ranjit Sinha, a senior disaster management officer in Uttarakhand, told Reuters on Wednesday that the previous machine they used to bore through the debris had “suffered a glitch” and that a high-powered auger drilling machine was being set up at the site. 

The machine, according to Sinha, can cut through debris at a rate of 2.5 metres an hour as opposed to the previous machine, which could only cut through one meter an hour. The machine will drill a passage wide enough for authorities to insert a 900 mm steel pipe through which the trapped workers can crawl out.

Colonel Deepak Patil, who is overseeing the rescue work for the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL, which was sanctioned the tunneling project by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways), said on Thursday that the drilling work had resumed and that it was three meters inside the tunnel after half an hour on Thursday.

A third plan is also in the works, he said. Equipment and machines for a possible option three are already on wheels, the Indian Express quoted him as saying on Thursday. 

However, there were “high chances” that the current rescue plan – of the faster and specialised drilling machine already at work – will work, the news house quoted Patil as saying. 

But authorities cannot give “an exact timeline” as the speed of the drilling could increase or decrease, he said.

“We do not have a machine to look inside the debris and determine what is in it,” IE quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile on Wednesday morning, colleagues of the trapped workers held a protest outside the under-construction tunnel against the NHIDCL, accusing them of “ignoring the safety guidelines which led to the incident”, the Times of India reported

The workers also expressed “dissatisfaction at the slow pace of [the] rescue operation”, TOI reported. 

A worker also told the Hindustan Times that the authorities were not allowing them to speak to the trapped workers and that they were keeping information hidden from them. 

The trapped workers would need both physical and mental rehabilitation upon being rescued – the incident could be traumatic for them as they are likely undergoing mental strain as well as physical stress, doctors told PTI on November 16. 

The Indian Express reported on November 16 that the chief medical officer of Uttarkashi, R.C.S. Panwar, said that there were some concerns regarding the health of the trapped workers since some had complained of minor headaches and nausea. 

Per the report, a six-inch pipe is being used to deliver essential medicines, multivitamins, glucose and dry fruits to the workers.

Rescue to take more days

Meanwhile, road transport minister Singh said on Thursday after assessing the rescue work at the tunnel collapse site that the rescue would take two or three days to complete.

“In the initial rescue work, the [drilling] machine which was being used led to some portions being disturbed, which is why we stopped it as it could prove to be more dangerous. Now, a new machine is being used. We are trying to successfully complete this task in 2-3 days,” PTI quoted him as saying.

The government is also taking the help of international experts, news agency ANI quoted Singh as saying. 

The Hindustan Times reported officials as saying on Wednesday that the state government was planning to take help from special rescue teams in Norway and Thailand to evacuate the trapped workers. 

Regarding Thailand, they specified rescue personnel having contacted a company that had rescued 12 people who had been trapped in a cave system in 2018 in the country’s northern Chiang Rai province.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that loose rocks falling into a tunnel that authorities are trying to create is hampering the rescue work. 

This is “the main challenge” that the operation currently faces, an anonymous “top” official in Uttarakhand told Reuters.

Part of the Char Dham project

In a press release on November 13, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had confirmed that the tunneling work is part of the Union government’s ambitious and controversial Char Dham road project under the Ministry. 

It said that the 4.531 km-long, two lane bi-directional tunnel at Silkyara will join the “Gangotri and Yamunotri axis under the Radi pass in Uttarakhand”. 

“The construction of this tunnel will immensely benefit the pilgrims as it will provide an all-weather connectivity and reduce 25.6 km snow-affected length of NH-134 (Dharasu-Barkot -Yamunotri road) to 4.531 km resulting in reduction of travel time to 5 min i.e. one tenth of 50 min being taken at present,” the press release said.

The tunnel project was sanctioned for Rs 1383 crore in 2018 and is being implemented by the Ministry’s company, the NHIDCL, the press release added. 

Later that year, the NHIDCL signed a contract with the Navyuga Engineering Company Limited for Rs 853.79 crore. 

Though the work was intended to be completed by July 2022, it has been delayed and the “present progress of work” is at 56%. Per the press release, it is likely to be completed by May 2024.

The Char Dham Project, which claims to also aid national security (for it will lead up to the Indo-Tibet border), includes widening around 900 km of existing national highways. 

Several experts have criticised the project saying it does not take into account the environmental, geological and ecological fragility of the area.

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