December 24, 2023

Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: A Result of Degrading Nature and Humans

R Karumalaiyan

MARX said that the labour and nature together constituted the dual source of all wealth. Capitalism as a system has intrinsically been geared for profit maximisation regardless of human needs or natural limits. The ruling class seems to think that nature is a ‘free gift’ to capital and workers are their wage-slaves. Thus capital’s inherent destructive dynamics of aggressive accumulation entails the barbarous, criminal degradation of both man and nature.

The recent criminality of such greedy capital accumulation that captured the world attention, centered on the fragile Himalaya and the victims were 41 workers who got trapped inside a partially-constructed tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district after parts of the structure collapsed. The workers were trapped as portions of the Silkyara-Dandalgaon under-construction tunnel on the Brahmkhal-Yamunotri highway project collapsed following a landslide at around 5.30 am on the day of Diwali, on November 12.

For 17 days, 41 workers were trapped approximately 200 meters from the tunnel's opening. The commendable role of five public sector undertakings – Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVNL), Ravi Vikas Nigam Ltd (RVNL), National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL), and Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Ltd (TDCL) – along with the often-criticised BSNL deserves appreciation for their efforts in trying to rescue the workers. While rat-hole mining is legally prohibited, the rat-hole miners bravely risked their lives in the final effort to save the trapped workers in the tunnel, emerging as true heroes who deserve special congratulations.

This incident of 41 workers being trapped in a tunnel serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of occupational health and safety, as well as the indiscriminate ecological degradation caused by the unbridled pursuit of profit. Who are these 41 workers? Where are they from? They are all migrant workers.  Classified as migrant workers, the Modi regime's loose definition in the labour code no longer legally encompasses them. Fifteen workers hail from Jharkhand, eight from Uttar Pradesh, five each from Odisha and Bihar, three from West Bengal, two each from Uttarakhand and Assam, and one from Himachal Pradesh. These workers, forced to seek livelihoods elsewhere due to dispossession of means of production or coercion due to lack of opportunities to gain even minimum income locally, reflect the impact of the neoliberal developmental model adopted by India's ruling class since the early '90s. The mad pursuit of ease of doing business by the Modi regime has eroded even minimal safeguards that existed in labour laws for these workers. The workers in the tunnel fall into two salary brackets: Rs 24,000 for skilled workers, pump operators or drillers; and Rs 18,000 for unskilled workers such as labourers or helpers. These relatively "decent" wages, drove them to risk their lives given the situation of economic distress in their native places. It is noteworthy that they have been working for more than 12 hours, with the hundreds of hours of entrapment not considered part of their working hours. The perspective on working hours, as offered by figures like Infosys's Narayana Murthy, does not take into account the life-risking hours endured by these workers!

The Char Dham project, a pet project of Modi, has evolved into an ambitious initiative of the ministry of road transport and national highways (MoRTH). With a budget of Rs 12,500 crore, the project was designed to widen roads in the region. As part of the Char Dham road scheme in Uttarakhand, a 4.5-km tunnel is under construction between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri portion of the National Highway. Launched in December 2016, the project aims to enhance connectivity between the four Hindu holy pilgrimage sites, collectively known as the Chote Char Dham – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri – through an 889-km road traversing the fragile Himalayan mountain range. From the outset, the project has been contentious, with environmentalists expressing concerns about heavy drilling and construction leading to subsidence, landslides, and irreversible environmental damage in the vulnerable Himalayan region.

In 2018, the project faced legal challenges due to its potentially hazardous impact on the Himalayan ecology. Ecological experts and environmentalists raised concerns about impending environmental disasters, such as flooding and landslides, resulting from the disruption of ecosystems for infrastructure projects. A petition was filed before the Supreme Court by these experts.

Environmentalist groups, led by Citizens for Green Doon based in Dehradun, submitted an application on February 27, 2018, to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), contesting the construction of the project. Their argument centered around the negative impact of the development on the Himalayan ecosystem. They contended that the project would lead to deforestation, hill excavation, and the dumping of muck and debris, contributing to further landslides and soil erosion in an already fragile Himalayan environment.

In the meantime, the transport ministry has divided the project into 53 individual projects, each with a length of less than 100 km, ostensibly to circumvent the requirement for Environmental Impact Assessment. On September 26, 2018, the NGT observed that the length of each of these projects was less than 100 km, and did not require environmental clearance. However, the NGT directed the formation of an 'Oversight Committee' to monitor environmental safeguards. This order was contested in the Supreme Court.

On August 8, 2019, the Supreme Court modified the NGT order and established the High Power Committee (HPC) with specific terms of reference. These included the responsibility to assess the project's cumulative and independent impact on the entire Himalayan valley.

Taking cognizance of an HPC report, on September 8, 2020, the Supreme Court directed the government to adhere to the transport ministry's circular of March 2018, that advised against the construction of full-fledged roads in hilly areas. The court permitted a width of 5.5 meters for two-lane structures. Subsequently, the circular was amended by the transport ministry on December 15, 2020, in line with the views of the ministry of defense (MoD) that the stretches of road in question act as feeder roads to the India-China border. This enabled for a width of 7 meters with 1.5 meters of paved shoulder on each side. In response, the government, through the MoD, filed an application in the Supreme Court, seeking modification of the September 2020 order. The request was to allow developing three stretches to a two-lane configuration in the interest of national security and defense of its borders.

In this context, the project was pursued vigorously. However, the collapse of the tunnel and the harrowing 17-day rescue operation to save the 41 trapped workers have brought to light alarming safety lapses by the contracting tunnel construction company, Navayuga Engineering, besides the criminal negligence on the part of the principal employer, the Government of India. It is crucial to note that the crisis in the Silkyara tunnel occurred just three months after 20 workers and engineers lost their lives on the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Expressway in Maharashtra's Thane district. In that incident, the sub-contractor of Navayuga Construction Company was held responsible, and an FIR was also registered against them.

The initial lapse by the construction company was the failure to establish a safety exit route. According to Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), tunnels exceeding a length of three kilometers should include an escape route to ensure the safety of workers in case of a disaster. As per the plan, according to India Today, a 400-millimeter concrete false floor was also planned in the tunnel, but no such flooring exists either. And, no trench cages or safe tubes were utilized for workers in unprotected trench areas.

Another critical aspect demanding thorough investigation is the widening of roads in the Himalayan mountains. The old guideline recommended a road width of 10 meters in hilly areas, but new standards introduced in 2018 limited the width to 5.5 meters. Since the Char Dham project had already commenced, it was supposed to adhere to the older guidelines. The collapse of the tunnel was attributed to a landslide resulting in the formation of extensive debris, ultimately leading to the tunnel's collapse.

According to a report by ISRO titled "Landslide Atlas of India," Uttarakhand is identified as the most vulnerable state to natural calamities in the Himalayan region, with instances of slope instability and a rising number of landslides in recent years. Furthermore, Prof. S P Sati, a geologist and professor of environmental science at Uttarakhand University of Horticulture and Forestry, stated in Business Standard that contractors have been known to use explosives in tunnel projects, suggesting that the collapse of the Silkyara tunnel might be linked to such practices. Prof. Sati expressed concern about the absence of an escape route, emphasizing that regulations explicitly mandate the construction of one for this tunnel. So far, no one has refuted this claim.

Projects like the collapsed tunnel and the Char Dham plan typically require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). However, the centre did not conduct such an assessment for this project, as it divided it into multiple stretches, each less than 100 km, exempting it from the need for an EIA. Ravi Chopra, the former chairperson of the Supreme Court-appointed committee, has criticised this bypassing as criminal neglect.

A comprehensive geophysical and geotechnical survey is required for all projects in ecologically sensitive areas. Additionally, there is an urgent need for a thorough revision of safety regulations governing tunnel construction. Establishing a high-powered committee comprising specialists is crucial for effective oversight and monitoring of all tunnel projects. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of the ministry of road transport and national highways (MoRTH) should be revisited.

Moreover, geologists and experts have collectively emphasized that companies and agencies engaged in tunnel construction in India often neglect safety concerns and measures, prioritising cost-cutting and profit maximisation.

The government should promptly ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions regarding health and safety, which were incorporated under the Fundamental Principles of Rights at Work by the ILO in its 2022 session, as demanded by all central trade unions, and a new Occupational Safety and Health Code, equipped with the necessary legal and technical provisions, should be enacted.