A tunnel vision that hurts the Himalayas
We should ensure that not just the successful rescue effort but the systemic failure that led to the disaster also stays in our collective consciousness
The 41 workers trapped in an under-construction tunnel at Silkyara-Barkot, Uttarkashi were rescued on Tuesday night after 17 days of harrowing wait. They were trapped in by a sudden collapse of the roof of a tunnel, which is part of the under-construction Char Dham highway, while preparing to end their 12-hour shift on Diwali (November 12). There will be a post-mortem of what went wrong at the construction site, including an evaluation of the rescue process, of course.
However, earlier in the week, an Australian expert, who had been called in to help with the rescue, referred to the repeated breakdown of the drilling machine as being a result of “resistance from the mountains”. This was striking. We are not used to such humble public admissions in the face of disasters. Neither are we used to official acknowledgement of the Himalayas and their demeanours, and the fallibilities of advanced machinery in such circumstances.
The discourse around the fragility of the Himalayas points to geographical limits and is employed in post-disaster situations. But that is more like saying “It wasn’t us, it was the mountain!”. We are also perfecting the art of getting caught unawares in the mountains: In the case of building infrastructure in the Himalayas, the official phrase is “geological surprise”, and, of course, “act of God”.
But such surprises have struck with alarming frequency in a slew of projects, especially during the building of highways and hydropower dams that involve tunnelling in the mountain. In September 2015, during the construction of the Swarghat-Nerchowk-Manali four-lane highway in Himachal Pradesh, a tunnel collapsed trapping three workers. Two, Satish Tomar and Mani Ram, were brought out safely, while the third, Hriday Ram, did not make it. The young divisional commissioner who led the rescue operations published a case study of the nine-day-long rescue operation, in which she wrote: “No precedents existed in the country for such a disaster situation, resulting in no agency wanting to shoulder the responsibility for the same.” A committee set up to conduct an inquiry into the tunnel collapse reportedly concluded that it was difficult to assess the “exact reason for the failure and collapse”. The challenging geo-topographical conditions were mentioned in the report and so was the lack of preparedness and monitoring (including the absence of the resident engineer on-site during construction). Safety negligence is spoken of ad nauseam, but as is the case in all post-disaster institutional and administrative investigations, the buck does not stop anywhere. Because no authority will indict itself for failing to ensure compliance from the very planning stage.
Such is the technological arrogance and the drive for “growth” that we have exempted certain “linear” infrastructure like highways and railways from the environment impact assessment (EIA) process. This is despite a history of “accidents” and an overwhelming knowledge bank on the seismic dynamics of the young Himalayas and the increasing frequency of landslides and subsidence. However, evidence shows that even when the legal requirement for an EIA is fulfilled, it is marred by poor implementation and procedural non-compliance. Shoddy reports that are silent on geological issues of tunnelling are the norm. Red flags raised around threats of environmental disasters at public consultations are greenwashed in the clearance process.
Like in the case of run-of-the-river hydropower dam projects being developed across the Himalayan region (to the tune of over 115,000 MW installed capacity). These involve the construction of diversion tunnels through high gradients (slopes). While the length of these tunnels varies depending on the size of the project, the diameter is anything between 10 to 15 metres. These tunnels carry river waters from the dam to the powerhouse site and are also built by drilling and blasting using high-intensity explosives or in one-off cases using tunnel boring machines (TBM). While the latter involves less dynamiting, it has not proved to be safer nor particularly “successful” in the Himalayan terrain. In May 2021, four workers were killed, one injured and one rescued after an under-construction tunnel of NHPC’s 800 MW Parbati Hydroelectric Power project caved in. Accidents have also occurred during the use of explosives, like in the 420 MW Shongthong Karccham project in Kinnaur a few years ago.
Tunnels are favoured in mountain regions because of narrow valleys, lack of availability of land or in the name of preventing deforestation and displacement. However, blasting through Himalayan shear zones, faults and fractures, apart from major disasters like Silkyara, leads to incremental and prolonged socio-ecological losses that remain hidden. EIAs do not include villages located along tunnel alignments as “project-affected” because their land is not “acquired” for underground construction. But the roads, farms and houses located along the alignment of (atop) most tunnels are ridden with cracks, crevices and deformations, appearing during, and, sometimes years, after construction. Sinking and sliding have been reported from villages in Mandi district above the Nerchowk Manali four-lane highway tunnel. Apart from slope destabilisation and adverse long-term geological disturbances, tunnel testing carried out before dam commissioning has been a proven hazard. In Himachal, this occurred in Chamera III, Bajoli-Holi, Parbati-II, and Karchham-Wangtoo projects to name a few, where sudden water seepages from the tunnel flooded the village. In the long run, the possibility of a major outburst cannot be ruled out. The disturbance of geo-hydrological regimes post-tunnelling leading to the drying up of underground springs and water aquifers is another recorded impact. In the long run, this affects the irrigation and drinking water supply in the affected villages.
While surface digging generates “overburden”, a much larger quantum of debris comes from mining the belly of the mountains. Project builders deposit this debris in forests, along streams and riverbeds (the technical term is mucking). Monsoon rain increases the sediment load of the river causing flash floods and landslides putting the Himalayas, already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, in a cycle of compounding and cascading disasters. The impacts listed are all on record, and available with regulatory authorities, ministries, scientific institutions and the courts. Yet hundreds of tunnels are now proposed for the ambitious railway projects in the Himalayas. Such is the lure of speed and reducing the distance to the destination called profit that place and people hardly matter. But at this moment it is our responsibility to ensure that not just the successful rescue effort at Silkyara but the systemic failure that led to the disaster also stays in our collective consciousness.
Manshi Asher is an environmental justice researcher based in Himachal Pradesh. The views expressed are personal