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All Workers Safely Rescued From Uttarakhand Tunnel

The tunnel collapsed on November 12, leading to a series of efforts to rescue the 41 trapped workers, who were provided with dry food and oxygen, and later, instruments of communication and hot meals.
Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami posted a picture with one of the rescued workers. Photo: X@pushkardhami

New Delhi: All 41 workers have been safely evacuated from inside the Silkyara tunnel after 17 days, news agency ANI reported.

“Ambulances leave from the Silkyara tunnel site as all the workers trapped inside the tunnel since November 12 have been successfully rescued,” reported the news agency.

The tunnel collapsed on November 12, leading to a series of efforts to rescue the 41 trapped workers, who were provided with dry food and oxygen, and later, instruments of communication and hot meals.

The evacuated workers are undergoing a health checkup at the temporary medical camp built in the tunnel, Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said on X (formerly Twitter). He also posted a picture with one of the rescued workers.

Auger machines to drill a path to where the workers were trapped failed multiple times. Arnold Dix, an international expert assisting with the rescue, had noted that it was rendered irreparable.

News reports said that rat miners managed to manually dig through the last few metres of debris this morning, creating an escape tunnel.

According to Reuters, ‘rat mining’ is a “primitive, hazardous and controversial method used in India mostly to remove coal deposits through narrow passages”.

Also read: Who Was Building the Uttarakhand Tunnel That Collapsed?

Tunnel to undergo safety audit: Gadkari

Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, thanked all the people and agencies (central and state) who contributed to the rescue in a live statement a few minutes after the rescue was completed and all workers extracted from the tunnel. It was a “well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years”, he said, per a government press release.

According to another press release, five agencies – the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, SJVN Limited (the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam), Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, and THDC India Limited – have been assigned “specific responsibilities, working collaboratively with occasional task adjustments for operational efficiency”.

“This is the first time we have faced something like this…This incident has also taught us a lot. Now we will do a safety audit of the tunnel and also explore how we can use more technology,” he added in the statement.

“The strata of the Himalaya are also extremely fragile; therefore it is natural that it is very difficult to work there. But we will need to find a solution to this [problem]. We will certainly find a solution to it.”

“The success of the rescue operation of our labourer brothers in Uttarkashi is making everyone emotional,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on X, formerly Twitter, on the night of November 28.

“I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone. I wish you all well and good health…The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough. I also salute the spirit of all the people associated with this rescue operation. This bravery and determination have given new life to our labour brothers. Everyone involved in this mission has set an amazing example of humanity and teamwork.”

Also read: If Lessons Are Not Learnt, Expect More Silkyaras

The contested ‘rat-hole mining’

Finally, when the auger drilling machine could go no further, it was a dangerous – and therefore banned – digging technique called “rat-hole mining” that, ironically, saved the day.

Rat-hole mining is a process where workers drill narrow tunnels, usually around 3-4 feet in diameter, for mining (and usually, this is done in coal mines). Vertical tunnels can spawn horizontal tunnels and so on, and this often forms a maze of tunnels (much like how rats make tunnels underground, and of size just about enough to fit one). Given that the tunnels are extremely narrow, labourers who engage in this method of mining are at huge safety risks. The method also causes several impacts on the environment, as Mongabay-India reported.

Rat-hole mining has caused many fatal accidents, especially in northeastern India. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered an interim ban on rat-hole coal mining in Meghalaya. However, this was not implemented, The Wire reported.

In 2018, the Indian Navy and the Army ceased their 60-day rescue operation to extract 15 miners trapped in a 370 foot-deep illegal coal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district. Only two decomposed bodies could be retrieved. In 2019, the NGT imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Meghalaya government for its failure to curb illegal coal mining in the state. The Wire also reported on alleged illegal exports of coal to Bangladesh that had caused a proliferation in rat-hole mining in Meghalaya in 2021.

According to news reports, rat miners got to work on Monday night in the Silkyara tunnel.

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