Uttarkashi Tunnel Tragedy Exposes Himalayan Construction Safety Gaps

According to a report by Business Standards, while major projects in India are mandated to undergo Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) by law, the Silkyara Tunnel in Uttarakhand received an exemption due to its division into segments smaller than 100 km each.
Uttarkashi Tunnel Tragedy Exposes Himalayan Construction Safety Gaps
Image Source- Times now Navbharat

New Delhi- The workers caught in the aftermath of the tunnel collapse on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarkashi district are optimistic about their rescue. But according to experts, the disaster should not have come as a surprise. The Himalayan range, where the construction is occurring, has always been ecologically unstable, prompting concerns about the construction methods and the apparent scrutiny it underwent.

Situated on the Yamunotri National Highway near Silkyara, the tunnel was part of the Chardham Highway Project. Following this incident, geologists have once more expressed concerns about the Char Dham Highway project. Geologist Naveen Juyal highlighted that tunnel construction in Uttarakhand typically encounters two primary challenges—the abrupt discharge of substantial water volumes and unforeseen encounters with sheared rocks, resulting from the rubbing action between them.

The Mooknayak spoke to ecologist Dunu Roy, Director of the Khatra Centre, to get a better understanding of the Himalayan range and the precautions that could have been taken. He explained, “The persistent collision between the Indian and Asian plates in the region, which was once submerged in the sea, has led to a geological composition dominated by sand, small particles, and stones, rather than substantial rocks. The tunnel that traverses the hilly terrain, connecting two river basins, is filled with these materials, and any sizable rocks encountered are prone to fragmentation due to the ongoing plate movements. The excavation process is particularly challenging given the lack of uniformity in the rock composition.”

The expert added, “The Himalayan range, still in a state of dynamic growth and movement due to the underlying tectonic plates, distinguishes itself from other hills by its unique combination of instability and considerable height. This dynamic geological environment necessitates the establishment of specific regulations tailored to its characteristics, as conventional rules may prove inadequate in ensuring safety and stability during construction projects.”

According to a report by Business Standards, while major projects in India are mandated to undergo Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) by law, the Silkyara Tunnel in Uttarakhand received an exemption due to its division into segments smaller than 100 km each. Consequently, in 2019, the Supreme Court directed an expert panel to propose options for risk mitigation. This tunnel is a component of the Chardham project, a comprehensive 900-kilometer connectivity initiative introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016. With a budget of $1.4 billion (120 billion rupees), the project's objectives include enhancing pilgrim tourism to four religious sites, strengthening military logistics, and improving overall connectivity for the state's residents.

The committee identified several issues, cautioning that the composition of the soil, containing crushed rocks and limestone, would heighten the existing risks of landslides and flash floods in the region.

Talking about the necessary precautions, Dunu Roy said, “When constructing the tunnel's roof, it was crucial to incorporate metallic support. Despite discussions about implementing parallel tunnels as a precaution against potential collapses, neither metallic support nor parallel tunnels were actualized. Consequently, in the current situation, rescuers are grappling with reaching workers through the main tunnel, which unfortunately lacks sufficient support. The collapsed section is under significant pressure from the mountain above, creating complexities in the ongoing rescue efforts.”

“Efforts to insert pipes through the tunnel face considerable obstacles due to the substantial pressure, resulting in bending. Additionally, the drilling process encounters hindrances not only from rocks but also from fallen metal pieces. This predicament can be traced back to a lack of responsibility during the initial construction phase.”

Questions on the Project Raised During a seminar on Sustainable Development

During a seminar on sustainable development and climate change held in Uttarakhand on 28th October 2023, SK Patnaik, a member of the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board, expressed concerns about the "unchecked development" occurring in the hills. Highlighting the existence of Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, Patnaik emphasized that despite their presence, they were not being adhered to. He stressed the need for sacrificing comfort and material possessions in favor of sustainability, advocating for a necessary shift in lifestyle.

Similarly, Dr. Poonam Gupta, a scientist at the Uttarakhand State Council for Science & Technology, underscored the importance of adopting sustainable practices for pilgrimages. She suggested conducting studies to assess water availability, the capacity of local businesses and buildings, and other factors that can support a specific number of tourists without adversely affecting the local ecosystem of religious sites. Gupta emphasized the significance of approaching pilgrimage in a manner that respects and preserves the delicate environmental balance in these areas.

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