They Removed The Mountain

Back from the Silkyara Tunnel

Atanu Chakravarty

Human labour matters; it cannot be replaced. The Guardian commented, "In the end it was a triumph of human labour over machinery as the specialist rat-hole mining experts managed to manually breakthrough the final 12 metres of rubble using only hand drills and pulleys".

At the end of the traumatic ordeal, these 14 men are the real unsung heroes, the faceless &nameless workers, the forgotten citizens of the country, the unorganised workers, engaged in the most life-threatening job with a paltry sum of wages, sans all other social security benefits.

When the India Today interviewer asked Munna Quereshi, the first rat- hole miner who burrowed, removed the last obstacle, reached and greeted the trapped workers inside the collapsed tunnel and initiated the rescue operation, what message he wants to disseminate to the nation. With tears in his eyes, choked voice and emotionally moved, continuously wiping his tears during the entire interview, he appealed to the Prime Minister that all the workers in this country are highly ill-paid, the owners, the contractors don’t pay their legitimate due wages on time, they are often deceived by the contractors and agents. He passionately asked the Prime Minister to enhance their wages, to look into their trials and tribulations. When asked, why they have opted for such a hazardous job, they said 'hunger, when pangs of hunger force their children to cry, the choice between life and death vanishes'. They have no other option; they work only to satisfy the basic needs of their families.

When the interviewer asked, how he will narrate the entire experience to his children, he promptly said, he won't. He doesn't want to depict this harrowing tale to those tender hearts, nor does he want his children to choose this hazardous profession.

Incidentally, many of these miners are from riot-torn north east Delhi.

The lesson of Joshimath has not been learnt. Or to say precisely, the powers in the corridors have refused to learn the lessons from the Joshimath tragedy.

An idea was mooted to transform Uttarakhand into Urja Pradesh ( India's energy hub) by constructing a chain of hydel power plants, blended with religiosity and linking the four key Hindu pilgrimage centres in the Himalayas ---- Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri --- with all weather faster road and rail connectivity. Coupled with the road connectivity project there is also a 372 km- long Char Dham Railway project with an estimated cost of Rs 72,000 crore, and it included construction of dozens of tunnels.

Geologists consider the Himalayas as fragile and relatively young mountain range stretched along a seismically active zone. AshimSattar, a renowned glaciologist, formerly at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said, civil construction projects there demand not just Environmental Impact Assessment ( EIA), but what he called 'multi- hazard assessment'. A landslide susceptibility Study by scientists from Roorkee and the University of Potsdam, Germany, along the 250 km highway from Rishikesh to Joshimath near Badrinath during September and October 2022 had noted 309 landslides or about one landslide every km!

But the tourist lobby prevailed over the safety norms.

Silkyara-Barkot tunnel was a part of the Char Dham project, which was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) chaired by Prime Minister NarendraModi in 2018. Though the timeline for completion was 2022, it is now on extension. The National Highway & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd, a fully owned company of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways awarded the tunnel construction contract to the Vishakhapatnam-headquartered group Navayuga Engineering Co Ltd which had no previous experience to encounter an emergency like the Silkyara tunnel collapse situation. All the approximate 800 migrant workers engaged for this project were not registered by the State Labour Department. Nor did they enjoy any form of insurance by the employer. The workers were forced to work even on November 12, National Holiday for Diwali, the fateful day. This company was responsible for the death of 20 labourers in August this year in an accident in Nagpur- Mumbai Samriddhi expressway and a case of culpable homicide has been registered against the company. Registrar of Companies officials carried a site inspection at Banjara and Jubilee Hills and found 47 companies belonging to the Navayuga group at the same address. This group has more than one hundred firms, retired IAS/IPS officers, are occupying prized position in their boards.

A mandatory provision for an escape passage was included while sanctioning the Silkyara Bend- Barkot tunnel project by CCEA which was totally flouted. All the norms were brazenly violated at every stage of construction. On December 21, 2018, seven workers literally perished in a landslide at Rudraprayag-- Gaurikund stretch of an under construction road. In July 2020, three children in Kheda village of Narendranagar block of Tehri were crushed to death while they were sleeping when the retaining wall of the highway collapsed on their house. On 20 July, 2022, two labourers lost their lives and six others sustained critical injuries when an under construction bridge collapsed in Rudraprayag district. The list is quite long.

The central government never heeded to the warnings issued by the experts, environmentalists, courts. To grab the approval of the apex court, the government clothed the project with national security attire, increased mobility of defence forces in support of Char Dham project. To avoid environmental compliance for projects exceeding 100 km, the close to 900 km Char Dham project has been presented as a cluster of 53 separate projects. The Supreme Court (SC) flagged green signal only on conditions of mandatory compliance with necessary environmental safeguards.

This paradigm of 'development' has only invited unmitigated disaster, death and destruction wrecking havoc in this Himalayan state. Eminent environmentalist Ravi Chopra, who was at the helm of expert panel that examined the Char Dham project, resigned to register his protest against the criminal apathy to heed the environmental issue.

The tunnel collapsed on Deepavali, the day of festival of light, extinguishing all the hopes, smiles, of all the families of 41 migrant constuction workers' families, immersing them into the deep waters of unbearable uncertainty. It was a test of resolve, courage and perseverance for over 400 hours the entire country waited with fingers crossed.

At last, the light was illuminated at the end of the tunnel by those workers whose hitherto all the rights achieved through long protracted struggle, are now in jeopardy. The four labour codes have hammered death nail on all the existing labour rights.

Symbolically, the light was lit at the other end of the dark tunnel by those undaunted, faceless workers, on 28 November, the day when millions of workers, and peasants were protesting against the notorious labour codes, against snatching of all the democratic rights only to appease the crony corporates of the country.


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Vol 56, No. 25, Dec 17 - 23, 2023