November 19, 2023

Endemic Disasters in Himalayan Transport Infrastructure


ANOTHER highway project in the Himalayan region, this time part of this government’s flagship Char Dham Highway, yet another tunnel, and one more disaster, fortunately with no casualties so far as this goes to print. 40 workers have been trapped for over 70 hours inside a 4.5 km railway tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri portion, when the roof of the tunnel near the mouth collapsed in the early hours of Sunday, November 11, 2023. Fortunately for the workers, they are behind the collapsed section and debris, and have 2 km open space behind them on the blind side of the tunnel. They are able to move about freely, and oxygen as well as water and nutrition-rich dry rations such as chick-peas and dried fruit are being provided to them through a narrow steel inserted through a drill hole in the debris blocking the tunnel.  

From what is available in the public domain and from witnesses, it appears there was inadequate preparation for rescue, eventuality of which should always be anticipated and prepared for in tunneling work. A relatively light-duty auger drilling machine had to be brought in from Hardwar, along with the pipes, almost 50 hours after the tunnel collapse, since none was available on site. The idea was to drill holes and insert pipes of 900mm diameter (about 3 feet) to enable the trapped workers to crawl out.

But this auger drill posed problems from the outset. It could not be properly set up on the ground due to constant falling of fresh debris and many landslides, indicating the unstable nature of the terrain, at least partly triggered by the tunneling work itself. Personnel at the site also said the drilling would have to be undertaken very carefully due to the soft rocks and soil in the area. Surely, this should have been taken into account while working out the drilling protocol and preparations for the same. Was this done? Further, the auger drill had proved inadequate for the task and a heavier-duty drilling machine had to be flown in, in a disassembled manner on an Air Force Hercules C-130 J aircraft to the nearest airport, and brought to the site. Would not this heavier-duty drilling machine trigger more instability of the slopes, and trigger more landslides and fall of debris? Were geological and other geo-technical studies conducted on this section prior to the tunneling work?  Are these reports available?


Numerous questions have been raised over the past few years by civil society organisations, think tanks and technical experts from different relevant disciplines about the Char Dham Highway, hydro-electric projects and other large infrastructure projects in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Even a brief review is not possible in this short article. However, a few salient points may be summed up here.

Reputed experts including from specialist national laboratories and premier academic institutions have emphasized that most such projects have not properly accounted for the geological fragility of the young Himalayan mountains either in their design or in the techniques used in their construction.  Flawed road cutting, steep cuts in the hill slopes far above prescribed limits leading to the slopes being prone to frequent landslides, widespread use of prohibited dynamite in tunneling and road-cutting works, and flagrant dumping of construction debris into the river below, raising their beds and rendering them more prone to overflowing their banks, and so on.

All these issues have been raised once again with regard to the present disaster as well as for the larger 900 km Char Dham Highway as a whole. Faced with opposition to the project on environmental grounds and, according to numerous experts, with apparently malafide intentions, the union government chopped up the project into 53 separate sections to render Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) unnecessary! Readers may be familiar with the prolonged drama in the top court when its own expert committee’s report and recommendations against reckless widening of the highway were rejected by a stacked committee on grounds of necessity of the aspirations of large numbers to undertake the holy pilgrimage, and on the grounds of national security to enable equipment to reach the border with China, which the Supreme Court threw up its hands. 

Nobody to this day knows the protocols being followed for construction in the hilly Himalayan regions. Does any department or agency in India have a strict building code for this region, and is there any independent body monitoring and enforcing these regulations as, for example, in the EU? Are proper geological studies conducted before designing and implementing projects?

For the present disaster, an inquiry has been set up by the Uttarakhand government comprising many governmental research and academic institutions, which will undoubtedly point to many possible causes but in such a way as to absolve almost everyone of culpability. A similar study of the Joshimath subsidence, with institutional experts from different disciplines, also presented a report from the narrow perspective of their respective disciplines. But like the proverbial blindfolded persons feeling only a part of the animal, the whole elephant was never visible.

Results of such reckless projects implemented at breakneck speeds at the cost of due diligence and safety precautions are already evident in numerous disasters of which the Tapovan-Vishnugarh Hydro power project which was destroyed in floods, and the subsidence of a majority of buildings in Joshimath, are stark reminders.


Perhaps even worse than these technical failings is the development vision that lies behind them. The idea of glimmering highways, carrying lakhs of pilgrims at high speeds to formerly pristine, remote sites whose very sanctity for believers probably also lay in the difficulty of access, must surely be questioned. It is this developmental vision, which puts a premium on generating a purely money-centred ecosystem for religious tourism, is undermining the very local economy, livelihoods, environment and way of life of the local inhabitants. Town en route to the major pilgrimage sites are already overcrowded, leading for instance to the subsidence in Joshimath, as has happened in many other locations. The rampant construction has completely disrupted the ecology of mountain streams, leading to acute shortage of water in all hill towns, which are already way beyond their carrying capacity. This has happened in all major hill stations too such as Shimla, Manali, Mussoorie and so on. Many tourist hubs in Europe such as Venice and Amsterdam have realised this and are beginning to turn tourists away.

Of course, hill people want to develop, have better amenities in their towns, and earn more money. But can we not envisage an alternative vision for this? More decentralised locations, better home-stays, safe and smooth transportation in a hub-and-spoke system, where tourists can appreciate and live in the midst of local environment and culture. Must tourists rush to destinations in enclosed tunnels instead of seeing all the scenic beauty en route, even if it takes a bit longer?


Right now, though, under the present dispensation we are caught in a headlong rush to build, and to destroy, both at the same time.   

And as we debate the pros and cons of the Char Dham Highway, another mega-transport project is underway, namely the Char Dham Railway, connecting Rishikesh and Dehradun via different valley towns to destinations very close to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Construction of this rail system, consisting of 328 kms of track, 21 new railway stations, 59 bridges, and 61 tunnels of 279 k” length in all, is already underway.

Can these “hills of the gods” withstand all this unregulated heavy construction work? Can the hill towns and the hills themselves withstand the pressure of the millions of tourists, or pilgrims if you prefer, that these highways and railways will bring?