December 17, 2023
Light at the End of Tunnel: Rescuers of Silkyara Felicitated in Delhi

THE joint trade unions platform in Delhi felicitated the 12 rat hole miners who valiantly rescued 41 construction workers from the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand. The meeting started by honouring the 12 workers with a souvenir and a citation from the joint trade unions. In a memorandum to the labour ministry of the Delhi government, the trade unions demanded that all 12 of them be given Rs 10 lakhs given their hazardous working conditions and present livelihood. The memorandum also called for strict adherence to occupational safety norms and emphasized the necessity for construction workers to be registered with the board directly by the contractor in all Delhi government projects.

D Raghunandan from the Delhi Science Forum explained the series of violations and highlighted the disregard for expert opinions from the scientific community in the Char Dham project. He pointed out that, according to regulations, each 1.5-kilometre tunnel was required to have an escape route, which was conspicuously absent in this case. The government, in order to circumvent the Environmental Impact Assessment for the 900-kilometre-long project, divided it into 50 smaller projects, a maneouvre that even the Supreme Court had not taken note of. Concerns were also raised about the geological instability of the region, aggravated by the disposal of excavated soil into nearby rivers, disrupting their courses. All these "vinaash, not vikas" (destruction, not development) projects have resulted in the sacrifice of numerous lives from the working class. In the case of Silkyara, the utilisation of high-pressure machines proved ineffective in the unstable Himalayan region, ultimately leading to the success of rat miners, whose handiwork caused minimal disturbance to the structure. He called for a thorough inquiry into the incident and urged the government to conduct carrying capacity studies for all projects in the Himalayas.

Vakeel Hassan, one of the miners, expressed that the task was challenging, but their belief in unity carried them through. Despite persistent efforts by certain sections to polarise the working class, religious differences among them were insignificant when the nation called. Hassan appealed for an end to the current atmosphere of mistrust and hate. He emphasized that need workers must be given fair wages, improved housing, and sufficient income to educate their children. Munna Qureshi, the first to reach the trapped workers in Silkyara, shared that they worked tirelessly for 26 hours, driven by thoughts of the affected workers' families and children. Despite potential attempts to sow division, the unity of seven Muslim and five Hindu brothers won at the end. Rashid Ansari explained the challenging task of manually removing the 3 quintal heavy remnants of the US-made Auger machine with their bare hands during the rescue operation. Monu Kumar also shared his experiences of undertaking this Heculean task.

Felicitating the workers, Tapan Sen, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and CITU all India president, expressed that the victory of these workers, whose religion and caste fuse into their class, instills hope for an ultimate victory against the current system. Other speakers highlighted how these workers have laid bare the shortcomings of the Modi-Dhami double-engine government. The event saw the participation of leaders and activists from INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, LPF, AICCTU, UTUC, MEC, ICTU, and IFTU. The Joint Trade Unions Platform in Delhi submitted a memorandum to the labour minister cum chairman of the Delhi Building and Other Construction Welfare Board, Government of NCT Delhi.

These 12 courageous working-class heroes represent a larger group of faceless and nameless workers who labour under extremely difficult conditions, involved in tasks such as laying pipelines and digging tunnels. The entire incident underscores the critical need to organise these workers around issues of livelihood and workplace safety. The CITU Delhi state committee has initiated  efforts in this direction, enrolling the six rat miners residing in Delhi as members of the Rajdhani Bhawan Nirman Kamgar Union (affiliated with CITU). It is our responsibility to channelise the valour exhibited by these workers into genuine working-class consciousness, with organisation being an integral component of this effort.