As rescuers make their way slowly, painfully to bring out 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara Barkot tunnel under construction in Uttarkashi region, the locals are holding special ritualistic pooja (prayers) to propitiate the local deity Baba Baukh Nag, believed to be the guardian of these hills. Folks in Uttarkashi told a correspondent from a Hindi TV channel that the construction company had demolished a small shrine of the deity when they began drilling. This has angered the deity and resulted in the tragedy and brought vipatti (calamity) on the heads of the team. The priest, Ganesh Prasad Bijalwan, told the channel that when company officials were apprised of this, they asked for the special pooja to Babbbba Baukh Nag , apologised and promised to build another shrine to him nearby.
The tunnel is part of a larger project to widen three all weather roads – from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh. This covers the famous Char Dham Yatra route that links four holy spots high up in the Himalayas – the Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines.
The planners said that a widening of the roads with shoulders in the hilly terrain would facilitate movement of the army to border regions as well as reduce accidents and travel time for pilgrims undertaking the Char Dham Yatra all through the year.
Tourism promotion has been a big development mantra in the state since 2014. And the Uttarakhand government has been raking in huge revenues from tourists who have been thronging here. Even during the pandemic, it held the Ardh Kumbh festival and thousands paid with their lives after they caught the disease during the holy snaan (bath).
In a poor and cash stripped area, the locals were quick to buy the Dev Bhumi narrative because it brought in tourists with deep pockets. A major English daily reported that in 2022 alone, close to 5 crore tourists visited the state along with 3.8 crore Kanwad Yatris. But all the pressure on the roads and constant load on its scarce water resources began to result in ecological tragedies and increasing road accidents from Chamoli to Joshimath and Nainital to Mussoorie.
On November 5, the portion of the tunnel that would connect Silkyara and Dandalgaon and also joined the route for the Chardham Yatra, suddenly collapsed in a landslide. Apparently the mountain they were boring into was fragile and rocks, pebbles and boulders came crashing down before plastering work could be undertaken. The authorities can not say they were caught totally unaware.
Since 2018, geologists and NGOs working to save the environment had been regularly warning the government about the feasibility of undertaking a mega project that required felling of trees, building of tunnels and disturbing the age old ecosystems in the hilly region. They felt it would pose a serious hazard to the delicate ecology of the entire Himalayan region.
As always the matter was then put before the honourable Supreme Court which created a 22-member High Powered Committee. However, in their July 2020 report, the committee presented two conflicting viewpoints. The report from the majority of 18 members (14 out of whom were reported to be bureaucrats) favoured the project, but four members put in their dissenting views firmly.
According to them, given the ecology of the Himalayan region, disaster resilient roads were more important than wider roads. Widening roads and building tunnels under mountains meant felling of trees, use of dynamite as well as sizeable and hard to dispose mounds of rubble. All these might trigger destructive and frequent landslides during rains and floods in the mountains.
A local NGO, Citizens for Green Doon, also underscored this view by pointing out that if the Indian army was okay with the existing layout and width of the roads, risking ecological disasters merely for Char Dham Yatra was not advisable. By the time the tunnel in Uttarkashi collapsed, the town of Joshimath was already sinking, revealing the unsteady ground underneath.
When the tunnel collapsed, the smaller machines on the site proved to be inadequate to bore through the rubble and rocks to retrieve trapped workers. By now almost 70% of the work is complete, but hesitation about the tunnel’s capacity has forced the state government to re evaluate the project. And at the time of writing, as “American” machines are being flown in, around 50 meters of solid rubble stand between the crew and the trapped workers.
The hill folk have worshipped nature like all tribals and to them the local gods are the ones who control the seasons and the ecology. Angering them can be disastrous as they do not like their hills being disfigured. As an example, the locals site the lore of Dronagiri, a hard to access village (the 45-km bus ride from Joshimath to Jumma has to be followed by a tedious 8-km trek). Dronagiri is home to some 400 Bhotiya families who migrate during the severe winters, to villages down below. The area measuring 5.5 kms has at least 500 glaciers like Bagini, Changbang and Neeti, and attracts a host of folk from outside during summers – mostly gatherers of rare herbs and hunters looking (illegally) to hunt the musk deer and Himalayan bear.
Here they tell you, how since the Treta Yug, not only mortal kings but even demi gods have been punished for ravaging these hills. According to legends, during the battle in Sri Lanka, Hanuman had brought the miracle plant (sanjivani booti) to revive Ram’s brother. But since he inadvertently destroyed the right side of the holy mountain (Parvat Dev), causing its disfigurement, Hanuman still remains unforgiven. At the formal celebration of Jagar in the village, when the atma (spirit) of the Dev Parbat appears in the body of a medium (known as Pashuwa) amid chanting of prayers, the right arm (symbolic of the right flank of the Drongiri hill) hangs limp and lifeless till the soul of the Local Parbat Devta departs.
May Baba Baukhnag Devta protect the hapless workers while the rescue work goes on using, as the media was assured by the highest authorities, the ‘New Austrian Tunnelling Method’ – a combination of drill and blast.
Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.