Big takeaway from Uttarkashi tunnel episode is do not toy with the Himalayas

Economic development is very important for any country, but it must be for the betterment of human lives

By Gurinder Kaur
Published: Tuesday 28 November 2023
Photo: @pushkardhami / X, formerly Twitter__

On November 12, 2023, at 5.30 am, 41 labourers were trapped in the tunnel when a part of the under-construction tunnel connecting Silkyara and Barkot of the Uttarkashi-Yamanotri Marg collapsed.

Efforts to get these labourers out of the tunnel and the work of supplying water, food and oxygen to the labourers through a four-inch pipe started from the very first day. The trapped labourers belong to the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The tunnel connecting Silkyara and Barkot is 4.5 kilometres (km) long and is a part of the Char Dham Marg all weather road. Two portions of this tunnel, 2.3 km from Silkyara side and 1.75 km from Barkot side, have been completed. A portion of the tunnel between 205 metres and 260 metres from the Silkyara side collapsed on November 12, on the day of Diwali.

The Char Dham Marg will reduce the 25 km distance between Silkyara and Barkot to just 4.5 km. Consequently, it will take only five minutes instead of an hour to cover this distance.

The four shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangatori and Yamnotri are to be connected in all seasons through Char Dham Marg. Uttarakhand being a hilly state, all these religious places remain closed for six months due to snowfall in winters.

The Char Dham Marg, a four-lane road, is being built to reach these religious places in every season of the year. Its total length is about 900 km. The Char Dham Marg passes through an environmentally sensitive area.

Before constructing this road, it was necessary to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of its entire area. But to build this road, it has been divided into 53 small parts and the road construction work has started.

This has been done because the construction of a road more than 100 km long requires an environmental impact assessment from the Union Ministry of Envionment, Forest and Climate Change which decides whether the construction area is suitable for that construction or not.

Apart from this, the width of this road is also being kept at 12 metres for which land up to 24 metres wide will be required. More logging in the mountainous area causes more possibility of landslides.

There is no information about whether an EIA of the area was conducted before the construction of the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel. According to experts, an escape tunnel is supposed to be constructed for rescue during tunneling, which is used during emergency situations, but there is no evidence of one in the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel.

In addition to spending Rs 853 crore to reduce the journey by just one hour, the natural resources of the area such as forest, land, mountains, air, water etc, are also being damaged on a large scale.

It is also difficult to estimate the magnitude of the mental trauma the labourers, who have come from distant places to earn their livelihood and their families are going through. This incident took place on the day of Diwali, when the whole country was celebrating the festival. The trapped labourers and their families were then undergoing an extreme bout of anxiety.

The state of Uttarakhand is nestled in the Himalayan mountains. The mountains here are still young and fragile. The state also falls in a sesmic and landslide-prone region. Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district itself experienced an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude in 1991 in which hundreds of people were killed.

Hundreds of people also died in the earthquake in Chamoli in 1999. According to a report by the Geological Survey of India, 39,000 square kilometres (72 per cent) of Uttarakhand is prone to landslides. According to an Indian Space Research Organisation report, 11,219 landslides have occurred in Uttarakhand from 1988 to 2022.

Any major project in such areas which are sensitive in all respects can bring disaster. The Union government is also citing the country’s security to build four-lane roads in Uttarakhand. According to the Centre, Indian security forces can quickly reach the border and protect the country through four-lane roads.

But here too, one has to think: If the roads are damaged due to landslides, how will security forces reach the borders? Trucks bearing soldiers can also get stuck in tunnels in case of collapse.

In order to save the existence of all Indian hill states including Uttarakhand, the Union and hill state governments should ensure that the development projects in a hill state are in accordance with the geographical and geological conditions there. In case of landslides, sinking of land and tunnel collapses, people have to bear huge mental, physical and financial losses.

The development in hilly areas should be sustainable and long-lasting. Therefore, the state and Union governments should seek the opinion of geologists, environmental experts and local people before undertaking large-scale projects in such sensitive areas.

Since the Char Dham Marg passes through a very sensitive area, its construction should be done only after scientific, geological and geographical investigation of every part of it. Along with the protection of the environment, the safety of labourers working in such projects should be ensured. Economic development is very important for any country, but it must be for the betterment of human lives.

Gurinder Kaur is former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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