For over 17 days, 41 workers were trapped in a tunnel under construction in Uttarakhand. Their condition was extremely precarious and there was every chance that they would die a horrible death, as thousands of workers have died in mines and construction sites in India before them. Finally, they were rescued due to heroic and untiring work of various teams including army personnel, rescue forces from India and some from abroad, and in particular due to the efforts of a category of mining workers who have very risky jobs and are very lowly paid. Two weeks later, the incident is largely forgotten by the mainstream media.

But serious questions remain. There are questions and serious concerns at various levels – which have been brushed under the carpet by the mainstream media thanks to the state election results and much else. We will attempt to discuss some of these here.

The tunnel was part of an ambitious project – the “Char Dam Highway Project” supposedly aiming to provide all-weather connectivity on the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit by road between Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The more important reason which was cited when it was approved by the Supreme Court on 14 December 2021 was to “improve border security” as the army will be able to deploy faster to the Chinese border.

As international experts have pointed out, there is an unusual environment in the Himalayan areas, where the nature of the rock is changing continually as the mountain range is relatively “young” in geological terms. It is pertinent to note that when the approval was given by the Supreme Court to go ahead with the project, Mr Ravi Chopra, the head of the project’s high-level committee, resigned from his post, saying that “taking up such projects in the Himalayas would be disastrous”. It seems his words have been proved to be true. So, it appears that the project was approved overriding the serious concerns expressed by experts on the safety of the project while construction was going on .

Infrastructure projects such as the Char Dham project require felling of trees and destruction of ecosystems. In hilly areas, this results in massive landslides and other environmental disasters.
According to the ‘Landslide Atlas’ report prepared by Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district, which houses the Kedarnath shrine, has “maximum exposure to landslide risk in the country”. So, there was adequate warning from respected institutions – which was not heeded!

Geologist Mr Naveen Juyal said mainly two types of incidents occur during tunnel construction in Uttarakhand — sudden release of large amounts of water and unexpected encounter of sheared rocks (worn out by rubbing against each other). Scientists also questioned whether adequate geological and geotechnical studies were conducted during tunnel alignment. Such an investigation needs to be conducted prior to any such construction and a report provided to the construction agency.

The geological surveys required before embarking on such large projects in the Himalayan region are not being carried out as needed, according to Mr Ravi Chopra, Chairman of the High-Power Committee formed by the Supreme Court to conduct the environmental assessment of the Char Dham National Highway project. He said that these surveys and investigations are both costly and time-consuming. Governments want projects completed with the least amount of money and in the shortest amount of time possible. Incidents like Silkyara are the result of this,” he said, after having resigned from the High-Power Committee.

Furthermore, it is alleged that the mandatory environmental impact studies were not carried out, by conveniently dividing the 889 km – long project into 53 sections – though they are together part of one and the same project! Mr Indresh Maikhuri, environmental activist, said “If the environmental consequences of these schemes had been considered, the recommendations of the Supreme Court’s High-Power Committee would have been implemented. Instead, the central government divided the 889-kilometer-long project into 53 sections to avoid the need for an environmental impact assessment,”

In other words, such accidents which could result in the death of hundreds of people, are the direct result of cost-cutting, the greed for profits, the desire to be able to move troops easily even at the risk of endangering several thousand human lives, and the desire to show off to the public by speeding things up dangerously.

Moreover, it is not just that the project was conceived and executed overriding concerns expressed by experts. It also appears that sufficient safety measures were not incorporated in the planning and execution of the tunnel and other parts of the project. After the accident, Uttarakhand State Leader of Opposition Mr Yashpal Arya said, “We don’t want to politicize this. However, the mine does not have any rescue plans. Why is there no way out in case of an accident?”

For several days there was no news about whether the trapped workers were alive or not, and subsequently contact was made, and pipes were inserted from the outside through which food, drinks and refreshments were supplied to them. They were also provided telephonic links to be in touch with their families.

Engineers worked round the clock to drill a safe passage through the broken rock using a state of the art machine, while officials flew in experts to help with rescue efforts. But ultimately, after 17 days, it was a set of underprivileged and underpaid miners who succeeded in bringing the men to safety, after the drill broke beyond repair just meters from the trapped workers. Known locally as “rat hole miners”, they belong to a niche group of highly skilled, but poorly paid excavators who typically crawl through narrow tunnels to extract coal from deep within the ground.
The disaster has brought to the fore many important questions of significance to all the people of the country. The first and foremost is the lack of attention to planning, especially in geologically sensitive and landslide-prone areas, the desire to maximise profit and the desire to reap political gains, hence the tendency to speed things up dangerously and ignore well-established practices of environment assessment, disaster prevention and the like. The second, as clearly seen in the tunnel disaster, was the absence of any contingency plan in the event of a disaster.

While contracts are handed over to private companies who make super-profits, the rescue operations are expected to be carried out by government agencies as well as the army and unsung workers like ‘rat-hole’ miners. This already points to a certain asymmetry in the arrangements.

Furthermore, as we have seen in detail above, the question of due diligence to environmental and safety concerns, especially in the Himalayan region, where the mountains are known to be young, where weather conditions are unpredictable, and the rock formations present an unknown dimension have been given short shrifts. In the reckless path to `growth’ and `development’ very little attention is paid to the price, and to the human cost. It is reported that for the kind of hazardous work that is undertaken in such construction projects, labourers coming from faraway places like Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha are paid only around Rs 18,000/- per month, with no social security.

The issue of the Uttarakhand Tunnel Disaster is not one that should be seen in isolation, but rather as a chapter in the story of India’s evolution, and one in which hardly any consultation is made with the people of India as to what kind of development must take place. A lot development takes place with extremely poor protection and depressed wages for the workers on the one hand, and the exploitation of nature on an unparalleled scale on the other hand, leading to massive profits for monopoly houses and construction companies, carried out with government blessing. In the whole game, neither are proper surveys and assessments carried out, nor are the well-founded concerns of experts like geologists considered, nor even are adequate safety features built into the tunnels and other parts of the project for safeguarding human life in the event of accidents. Human safety is completely disregarded in the lust for profit and political showmanship. The present episode is one that presents an opportunity to open a discussion on the nature of Indian economy and politics and the manner in which decisions are taken.

by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram


1. Char Dham Project Explained: Purpose, Need And Ecological Impact (
2. Uttarkashi tunnel collapse: Experts raise questions on geological and geotechnical surveys for project (
3. Uttarakhand mine accident: What are the answers to the questions raised by the recovered workers…? (
4. Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: India’s hero ‘rat hole miners’ who helped rescue 41 men | CNN

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