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Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: A Human-Engineered Disaster

Uttarakhand tunnel collapse exposes the escalating man-made disasters plaguing the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region where development projects often proceed without due regard for environmental regulations.

By Neeraj Thakur
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Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse
Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Rescuers work at site | Photo courtesy: @UttarkashiPol | Twitter 

Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: A Man-made Disaster

On the occasion of Diwali this year, as the nation illuminated with joy and festivity, a grim disaster unfolded deep within the heart of Uttarakhand. On November 12, 41 workers found themselves trapped in a tunnel, their lives hanging in the balance after a portion of the Silkyara Board - Barkot tunnel, still under construction, succumbed to collapse in the Uttarkashi district.

In the wake of the Uttarakhand tunnel collapse, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), the police, the Indian Air Force, the Army, the state and central machinery united in their efforts to rescue the beleaguered workers. The national media has been chronicling each moment of this rescue mission, highlighting the unwavering dedication of those striving to bring the workers to safety. Yet, amidst this fervour, we must pause to ask a fundamental question: Why did this tunnel collapse occur? Could it have been prevented, or was this tragedy an inevitable outcome of human error and negligence? And, most crucially, who bears the responsibility for this man-made disaster that has brought about such anguish? 

The Uttarakhand tunnel collapse is a stark reminder of the serious lapses in the Char Dham all weather road project. This ambitious undertaking, initiated with great fanfare when Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid its foundation stone in December 2016, was intended as a tribute to the lives lost during the devastating flash floods that ravaged Uttarakhand in 2013. One of the key components of this project is the construction of a 4,500-metre-long tunnel, undertaken by the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) in partnership with Navayuga Engineering Construction Limited (NECL) at a staggering cost of over 8,000 crore rupees.

While the Char Dham all weather road project held the promise of improving connectivity, the tunnel collapse has exposed the glaring deficiencies in the execution of this project. This catastrophe raises crucial questions about the government's role and accountability in overseeing such critical infrastructure projects. The central government's Char Dham highway widening project managed to circumvent the crucial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study. In accordance with India's Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006, it is explicitly mandated that projects of significant magnitude must undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment before proceeding. This notification specifically outlines that the expansion of all highway projects spanning 100 kilometres or more, as well as the construction of projects exceeding 20,000 square metres, necessitates an EIA.

Regrettably, in the case of the Char Dham project, these prescribed procedures were sidestepped. In a bid to avoid the requisite EIA, the 889-kilometre-long project was divided into 53 separate sections, effectively fragmenting the environmental assessment into localised components. This manoeuvre allowed the project to proceed without the comprehensive evaluation that was mandated by the regulations. 

In response to the harrowing tunnel collapse incident, the Uttarakhand government has set up a six-member expert committee. This committee, under the leadership of the Director of Uttarakhand Landslide Mitigation and Management Centre, has been tasked with a mission—to delve into the causes behind the failure of the Silkyara Tunnel. However, scepticism looms large over the impartiality of this state-led committee. It's no secret that the political landscape in Uttarakhand is currently dominated by the BJP, raising concerns about the potential for self-exoneration. The public's scepticism is not unwarranted, as history has shown that investigations into such incidents often fall short of delivering justice when political interests are at stake.

Meanwhile, independent experts have also raised critical questions to the government if geological studies were conducted prior to embarking on this high-intensity project. The extensive use of explosives in the region has come under scrutiny, with the possibility that such activities may have triggered the catastrophic collapse.

The Uttarakhand tunnel collapse and the tragedy that ensued it shows us the inherent risks associated with construction in the geologically sensitive Himalayan region. Critics argue that the proliferation of dams, roads, and other significant infrastructure projects in the area has exacerbated the frequency and severity of such incidents. With over half of Uttarakhand, encompassing areas like Uttarkashi, designated as "high and very high" landslide-prone zones, it becomes abundantly clear that rigorous environmental and geological studies are an imperative prerequisite for undertaking projects of such high intensity.

To fully grasp the magnitude of the issue at hand, it is essential to delve into the recent history surrounding the project and the cloud of obfuscation that seems to shroud it. In 2022, Ravi Chopra, the Chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) on the Char Dham all weather project, expressed his disappointment with the approval granted for the "brazen widening of roads" in the ecologically-fragile Himalayan region. In response, he submitted his resignation from the HPC because of his deep-seated concerns about the project's environmental impact.

In the aftermath of the Uttarakhand tunnel collapse, Chopra's insights bear even greater significance. He has emphasised that any development initiatives in the Himalayas must prioritise ecological considerations, emphasising the need for approaches that are not only geologically robust but also ecologically sustainable. Chopra's warning is clear: Without achieving a delicate balance between development and environmental preservation, the spectre of such horrific incidents will persist. 

Following the tragic tunnel collapse incident, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by Samadhan, an NGO based in Dehradun. The PIL called for the registration of FIRs against the officials responsible for endangering the lives of the tunnel workers. The court, acknowledging the urgency of the matter, admitted the PIL and issued an order to both the central and state governments, compelling them to respond within 48 hours regarding their efforts to rescue the 41 trapped workers. While these immediate concerns are paramount, it brings to light a recurring issue—that when the government engages in ecologically sensitive projects, private entities often enter the picture with scant regard for public safety or ecological well-being. Environmental norms are routinely disregarded, and it is the workers, often impoverished migrants from various states, who pay the ultimate price. This lack of accountability and consequence is a glaring flaw in India's governance.

Uttarakhand, since 2010, has borne witness to an alarming surge in both natural and man-made disasters. The recent tunnel construction failure along the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri road in the Uttarkashi district joins a disheartening trail of calamities that have plagued the Himalayan region since the commencement of massive road construction projects. Whether it's the Kedarnath disaster, recurrent landslides, the Joshimath incident, or numerous other occurrences, Uttarakhand's landscape is marred by unchecked development. The alarming increase in landslides and tunnel collapses along the Char Dham route cannot be divorced from the backdrop of unscientific construction practices routinely employed by contractors. It is high time for a thorough assessment of the implications of such practices on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem and the lives of those who reside and labour in these treacherous terrains.

The Uttarakhand tunnel collapse stands as a distressing addition to the ongoing chain of human-engineered disasters plaguing the Himalayas. While efforts are being made to rescue the workers, we cannot ignore the glaring lapses in adhering to environmental norms and the complete disregard for standard operating procedures in the pursuit of developmental ambitions. The toll it takes on human lives and the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystem cannot be ignored any longer.

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