It has been 11 days since a part of the tunnel at Silkyara collapsed.
In the days that followed, some described the event, which left 41 workers trapped and desperate for a rescue, as an unfortunate but unforeseeable natural event.
That assertion is disingenuous and risible. The collapse was anything but unforeseeable. Countless locals, activists and academics had warned against pell-mell construction in the Himalayas, stressing their fragility and instability. The Ravi Chopra committee report is just one instance.
What makes Silkyara and the larger project it’s a part of – the Char Dham Mahamarg Pariyojana – notable is the planners’ decision to ignore these warnings. This decision, in turn, tells us that India’s environmental clearance architecture is now fully broken.
What went wrong with Silkyara
The backstory here is well-known.
The Char Dham Mahamarg Pariyojana seeks to build wide, all-weather roads, between the Hindu holy towns of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.
All infrastructure projects in India, once beyond a stipulated threshold, have to get themselves an environmental clearance. Any proposed highway running longer than 100 kilometres, for instance, needs an environmental clearance. Given it is 900 km, Char Dham needed one as well. In a rush to finish the project before the next elections, however, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government split the project into 53 separate sections, none over 100 km in length, and evaded the need for an environmental impact assessment.
Even that, however, is not when this ball started rolling. A better starting point is 2013, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance decided to waive environmental clearances for road projects less than 100 km long. Three years later, the NDA made use of this waiver even though the Main Himalayan Thrust – where the Indian plate pushes under the Eurasian plate – not only runs through Uttarakhand but comes close to the tunnel site. This, as activist Himanshu Thakkar wrote, creates obvious “seismic and shear zone implications”.
Finding no room for their concerns in this abbreviated planning process, locals approached the National Green Tribunal – and then, the Supreme Court itself – but the Centre’s sidestepping of the environmental clearance process went unchallenged by both.
Even as these cases were being heard, the project rolled on. In February 2018, the Cabinet approved the Barkot-Silkyara tunnel – between Gangotri and Yamunotri. In June 2018, the state-owned National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) awarded the tender for tunnel construction to Hyderabad-based Navayuga Engineering Company.
In the same year, Navayuga hired a German-Austrian engineering consultancy called Bernard Gruppe to design and build the tunnel.
What happened in Sikkim
A month before Silkyara, geological risks had hammered another infrastructure project.
In Sikkim, a glacial lake burst, resulting in the Teesta punching its way through 1,200 megawatt Teesta III in the upper reaches of the state.
Both Teesta III and Silkyara are analogous tales. In the case of the dam, locals’ warnings about glacial lakes had been ignored. As a forthcoming story in The Wire will show, its construction was handed out to an untested firm which was just four months old when it bagged the tender.
Thereafter, Sikkim and the dam management failed to enshrine disaster management and dam safety protocols.
We know what happened thereafter. Geological risks – ignored during the environmental clearance process – asserted themselves once construction started. The dam site was hit by a landslide and then by an earthquake. Both resulted in construction delays, and left the hydel project unviable. Then came the glacial flood, and took the dam out entirely.
The tunnel at Silkyara has traced a similar trajectory. Once construction began, Navayuga ran into geological surprises. “Since the start of tunnel driving, the geological conditions have proved to be more challenging than predicted in the tender documents,” says Bernard Gruppe on its website.
For its part, Navayuga took a series of decisions which amplified workers’ vulnerability to geological risks.
The most glaring of these decisions was the failure to build an escape passage, as stipulated in the original cabinet approval. Even if the company wanted to build such a passage – for travellers – only after completing the main tunnel, it needed to build an escape route for workers in the case of an emergency during construction. It didn’t.
So many red flags in the Uttarkashi tunnel construction project. pic.twitter.com/HVrLjDu0E7
— Suvrat Kher (@rapiduplift) November 20, 2023
This omission went unchallenged by the Uttarakhand government; by NHIDCL; and the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. It stayed unchallenged even after an accident at another Navayuga project site this August claimed 20 lives, and resulted in a case of negligence being filed against the company.
We know what happened next. A part of the Silkyara tunnel collapsed, maybe because explosives were used, or maybe because the mountain itself was fragile.
In the hours and days after the collapse, further evidence of Navayuga’s unpreparedness came to light. Rescue equipment like drilling machines were not available at hand. They had to be flown in. Even as the government began pushing vitamins and anti-depressants to the trapped workers through a four-inch pipe, their diet stayed suboptimal – dry fruits, puffed rice and popcorn.
Only after nine days, when a six-inch pipe was eventually pushed through to the workers, did they get their first cooked meal.
This lack of preparation drew flak from Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren. “While commencing work on such projects, one needs to have safety protocols in place and also have rescue plans in case of emergencies,” he said. “But the situation is that even after so many days, there are talks of hiring foreign experts for rescue works. We have no option but to wait.”
The Wire has asked Navayuga why the escape tunnel hadn’t been built, if it had used explosives, and why it hadn’t planned for contingencies despite multiple warnings about the Himalayas being fragile and unstable. This article will be updated when it responds.
These questions, however, scratch the surface. Silkyara (and Teesta III) are proverbial canaries in a mine, giving us a deeper warning than just the specific infirmities of these projects.
The ceded landscape of environmental protections
On the night of May 6, 2020, history repeated itself in Vizag.
At 3 am that night, a neuro-toxic gas leaked from a chemical plant of LG Polymers and spread into the colonies abutting the plant. Thirty-six years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Indians again woke up struggling to breathe, their eyes burning. At least 11 people died in the incident. About 5,000 were hospitalised.
In the days that followed, it emerged that the plant had been running without an environmental clearance.
It was a sobering moment. After the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, India passed new laws, such as the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986 and the Public Liability Insurance Act (PLIA), 1991 and amended existing ones, such as the Factories Act, 1948, to rein in the public costs of industries working with hazardous technologies and chemicals.
In the years that followed, these laws too were weakened repeatedly.
That night in Vizag, the full scale of usurped environmental protections became suddenly visible. As Article-14 wrote: “When a poisonous gas leaks from a poorly maintained industrial unit, operating without an environmental clearance, in the midst of residential neighbourhoods, it invites more than comparisons with Union Carbide. It forces the belated recognition that, in terms of effective protection against industrial pollution, India is back where she was before the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.”
The big warning
That is the big lesson from Silkyara and Teesta III as well.
At one time, seeking to protect places like Silent Valley, India created a strong environmental governance architecture.
Over the last 30 years, however, a double movement has played out. On the one hand, the country rolled out large infrastructure-building drives – to set up thermal power projects, erect dams, build highways, set up ports. In tandem, given industrial lobbying for deregulation and the gravy train around infrastructure-building, the country weakened its environmental governance architecture.
This was a cynical game. For over 20 years, the environment ministry has been presented as a roadblock, delaying the construction of India’s industrial plants and infrastructure projects. The ministry was also presented as corrupt, with successive ministers taking bribes to clear projects.
To fix these problems, the country needed to insulate project approvals from inefficiency and political interference. One solution was to create a statutory environment regulator like America’s Environment Protection Agency – which would also do away with politicians’ power to issue environment/forest clearances. This didn’t happen. Instead, successive governments weakened India’s environmental clearance process. Public hearings were defanged; project proponents were allowed to define the environmental parameters along which their projects would be evaluated; the time taken to evaluate projects was slashed; one could go on.
The chickens are now coming home to roost. In both Teesta III and Silkyara, policy plans and project reports barely acknowledged environmental risks. In the first instance, the environmental impact assessment was cursory. In the second, there was no environmental impact assessment at all.
In both cases, geological risks showed up during construction. All of this raises a large question. Over the last nine years, the NDA has embarked on a new double movement of fresh infrastructure projects (river-interlinking, inland waterways, more highways…) while continuing to weaken India’s environmental laws. The resulting interplay – between disregarded environmental risks and infrastructure projects – has to be better understood.
The tragedy here is that the resulting costs are unfairly distributed. At Silkyara, 41 workers came close to losing their lives. In the days after Teesta III’s collapse, social media was filled with images of locals trying to save each other.
These, however, are highly visible instances of planning failures. Others are more invisible. Poorly scrutinised risks result in cost- and time overruns, turning projects unviable, even forcing states to support them.
Such are the costs of looking at environmental protections as barriers for development.
M. Rajshekhar is an independent reporter studying corruption, oligarchy, and the political economy of India’s environment. He is also the author of Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope.