A Forgotten Tunnel Accident: Survivors Ate Mud and Paper

Another Forgotten Tunnel Accident: Survivors Say They Ate Mud and Paper

In 2015, three labourers were trapped in a Himachal Pradesh tunnel accident. Amid ongoing rescue efforts for 41 workers in Uttarakhand's Silkyara tunnel, we revisit these stories, emphasising the challenges faced by labourers and the need for improved safety in construction projects.
First Published: Nov 24,2023 09:58PM
by Anshuman Singh
Tunnel accident

Tunnel accident
Maniram (Left) and Satish Tomar (Right) | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“We used to eat mud when we got stuck after a tunnel accident for nine days in Himachal Pradesh. The machine we operated contained a logbook, and we used to eat paper from that book. During the initial five days, we were completely cut off from the outside world and were gripped by the fear of imminent death. The tunnel was shrouded in darkness,” states Maniram, reflecting on those nine bleak days.

Read More: Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: Government Accountability in a Human-Engineered Disaster

Back in 2015, Maniram and two other labourers were working on a 1200-metre tunnel as part of a highway project in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh. Their world was completely altered when the disaster struck. A massive cascade of debris thundered down upon the tunnel, trapping Maniram and his fellow labourer, Satish Tomar. Tragically, Hirda Ram, their third companion, died on the spot following the tunnel accident.

Both the labourers’ entrapment in the tunnel lasted for an  agonising nine days. As the tunnel floor turned into their makeshift bed, their predicament worsened when the tunnel began to flood. To stay alive, they stood atop a machine that was also trapped along with them. 

“On that fateful night of September 12, 2015, a group of 18 to 19 workers, including the three of us, were on the night shift duty. At approximately 8 pm, the tragedy struck. The situation remained dire for both of us for the first five days as those days slipped by without any communication with the outside world. It was only after this initial period that a glimmer of hope emerged when a CCTV camera and microphones were finally inserted into the tunnel, enabling limited contact with the rescuers. On the tenth day, the NDRF team rescued us,” recounts Maniram. 

Amidst the ongoing herculean efforts to rescue 41 trapped workers after the Silkyara tunnel accident in Uttarakhand, it’s impossible to ignore the distressing patterns and sobering realities that seem to echo across similar incidents. India frequently bears witness to such calamities, where labourers become ensnared or tragically lose their lives amidst construction sites, road-building projects, or tunnel works. Yet, while a handful of these tragedies garner attention and media coverage, the majority remain hidden in obscurity, untouched by the public eye.

Adding to the poignancy of these stories is the disheartening fact that many victims and their families receive no compensation for the perils they endure. Maniram, reflects on his own experience, revealing that he received just a compensation of one lakh rupees from the private company responsible for the construction work. However, he laments the absence of any compensation from the government. 

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“Following the incident, the company’s contract was terminated. Although I was promised a permanent job, it never materialised. The company did provide me with a compensation of one lakh rupees, but I received no compensation from the government. I didn’t want to complain; I was simply grateful that I did not die and I survived by the grace of God,” asserts Maniram.

These road and highway projects, while potentially involving subcontracted work with private construction companies, are fundamentally government initiatives. When incidents like these occur, it is imperative for the government to assume responsibility. At the very least, after such harrowing incidents, the workers should receive the compensation they rightfully deserve for the physical and psychological toll they endure.

However, regrettably, our system often lacks a robust culture of offering counselling and providing adequate compensation to those affected by such incidents. This absence not only overlooks the emotional scars that survivors carry but also fails to address the financial burdens they may face due to medical bills and lost wages during their recovery.

In our conversation with Satish Tomar, a native of Sirmaur district in Uttar Pradesh, a startling revelation emerged. Satish disclosed that he had foreseen the impending collapse of the tunnel due to the emergence of cracks. He also sounded the alarm, notifying both his fellow workers and the construction company about the precarious situation. However, what’s truly disconcerting is that it took a full five days after his alert for the tunnel accident to occur but nothing much was done to avert the disaster.

“I cautioned my colleagues about the potential collapse of the tunnel as the tunnel was weak and cracks were visible in its structure. Unfortunately, my concerns were not taken seriously at the time. Subsequently, the company initiated maintenance efforts in response to the cracks. Despite my apprehensions, I felt compelled to return to work the following day due to my financial constraints as I come from a low income family. My worst fears came true after five days when the tragic incident occurred and I lost my colleague to it and two of us got trapped,” recounts Satish. 

Satish further shares, “We resorted to consuming mud and even the pages from a logbook found inside the machine for sustenance. The uncertainty of whether anyone would come to our rescue weighed heavily on us. The traumatic memory of witnessing our colleague’s demise right in front of us still haunts me to this day. I received no compensation from the government, and while the company did provide one lakh rupees, the incident left me jobless. Today, I’ve somehow managed to secure another job, but I am still in the same field doing the same kind of dangerous work”.

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Satish explains that he, along with his fellow colleagues, gathered contributions of 1,000 and 2,000 rupees from their coworkers and well-wishers. They then visited the bereaved family of their deceased colleague, Hirda Ram, and offered them about 60,000 rupees. Satish adds, “We may be modest in means, but this was the best we could do within our limitations.”

Former NDRF DG OP Singh, who led the rescue efforts in 2015 as the DG, has revealed that, to this day, the fate of Hirda Ram remains shrouded in mystery. Astonishingly, his lifeless body has yet to be recovered. Singh recalls the events, explaining, “Maniram and Satish Tomar were successfully extricated by NDRF personnel. At the time of the incident, the tunnel, which was still under construction, had reached a length of only 750 metres before the tunnel accident. Tragically, there were 11 workers trapped beneath the debris, and miraculously, eight of them managed to escape. Regrettably, three others were not as fortunate. Among them, Hirda Ram’s fate remains unknown, and despite our best efforts, we were unable to locate his remains. It took an agonising nine days, but we ultimately succeeded in rescuing Maniram and Satish Tomar.”

Singh underscores the pressing need to enhance our preparedness for intricate rescue operations in challenging mountainous terrains. He emphasises, “In instances like tunnel accidents or similar incidents in mountainous regions, executing rescue operations demands specialised training and advanced equipment to effectively manage such situations. It’s imperative that we bolster our capabilities and provide additional training to our personnel to handle such delicate rescue operations.”

As efforts continue to rescue the 41 workers in the Silkyara tunnel accident case, it is important for the authorities to understand that in the wake of such incidents, it is not sufficient to merely hold the construction companies responsible. The onus must extend to ensuring that the workers who endure the physical and emotional trauma receive the care and compensation they so rightly deserve. It is disheartening that we often fall short in providing the necessary counselling and support to those affected, neglecting both their emotional scars and the financial burdens they bear. Tragedies like these should not only prompt introspection but also inspire concrete actions to build a safer, more compassionate future for those who dedicate their labour to the nation’s development.

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