At least three labourers were trapped when an under-construction tunnel on the Kiratpur-Nerchowk national highway caved in at Tehra, 14 km from Bilaspur town in Himachal Pradesh, on Saturday evening.
Subdivisional magistrate (SDM), Ghumarwin, R Patyal said the incident happened around 8:30 pm when the labourers were getting ready for the night shift. Five of them had a narrow escape as the tunnel caved in when they were about to enter it. The debris blocked the tunnel's opening.
"Three labourers are trapped 25-30 metres from the opening. The police have sought assistance from the public works department (PWD) for clearing the rubble," superintendent of police (SP) Balbir Thakur said.
The tunnel has been cordoned off and excavators of the PWD and the Himalayan Construction Company have been pressed into service to clear the debris. The 1.3km-long tunnel is part of the four-laning project of the national highway connecting Kiratpur to Nerchowk in Mandi district.
The trapped workers were identified as Sita Ram, Hriday Ram and Satish Kumar. Locals fear that the number of trapped persons could be higher.
With rescue work hampered by falling debris, the civil administration sought assistance of tunnel experts from the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is boring the 8km tunnel beneath the Rohtang Pass.
"There is no information about the trapped labourers. We have requisitioned experts to supplement rescue efforts that have been continuing since Saturday night," said DD Sharma, special secretary of the state disaster management authority. He said the state government was also in touch with the National Disaster Relief Force, based in Bathinda (Punjab). The BRO team had been able to install an oxygen pipe for the trapped labourers.
Labourers working in the tunnel alleged that safety measures were inadequate on the spot. The tunnelling work is being executed by the Himalayan Construction Company. Local residents have demanded the registration of a case by the police against company officials.
Labourers said they had been asking the company authorities to adopt safety measures. "They assured us that the matter would be taken up with higher officials, but to no avail," a labourer said.
A worker, Hans Raj, said they had informed the company about a 4-inch-wide crack developing in the tunnel, but no action was taken.