41 workers are trapped in a collapsed tunnel that was under construction in Uttarakhand. This is a far too familiar story of negligence—but also the tragic fallout of overruling environmental red flags.
First, tell me about the tunnel…
The tunnel: On November 12, part of a tunnel being constructed on the Yamunotri National Highway partially collapsed. This 4.5-km tunnel is supposed to provide all-weather connectivity to Yamunotri—and reduce travel distance between Uttarkashi and Yamunotri town by 26 km.
The Chardham project: The tunnel is part of the Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna—which seeks to connect four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand: Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunothri, and Gangothri. It was launched in 2016—and is expected to cost Rs 120 billion (12,000 crore)—to develop around 889 kilometres of roadways in the region. Other than benefitting tourism, the government says the project is necessary to help transport military equipment near the sensitive India-China border.
FYI: According to the latest government update, 75% of the project is now complete. The project was slated for completion in 2020—but has been delayed due to weather conditions, including heavy rain.
The tragedy: When the tunnel collapsed on November 12, 41 workers were left trapped inside. They were mercifully unharmed. All of them are migrant workers—from Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha etc. They are stranded 200 metres inside the tunnel. And there is 60 metres of debris blocking their exit. Of this, 24 metres has been cleared. This India Today graphic shows the lay of the land:
The silver lining: On Monday, the rescue operation managed to install a six-inch pipe into the debris—to send food and water to the workers. Officials plan to send proper meals including fruits, dalia and khichdi—and mobile phones “to keep themselves busy.” The government psychiatrist paints a rosy picture of their situation:
We’ve kept constant contact, suggesting activities like yoga, walking, and encouraging conversations among them to maintain high morale. Among those trapped inside is one Gabbar Singh Negi, who has been in a similar condition before. Being the oldest among them, he is ensuring everyone’s confidence remains high.
But, but, but: Independent experts worry about the risk of trauma caused by prolonged confinement—which increases with each passing day: “As the days go by, the risk of psychological breakdown will grow, although that point will depend on the individual. A breakdown could mean heightened anxiety, depression and anger.”
Point to note: The disaster was somewhat well-timed:
Off the record, a rescue official says this accident could have been worse had it not occurred on the day just preceding the Diwali holiday. Each shift working on the tunnel comprised 150 to 200 workers on regular days. Because Diwali was around the corner, many workers were on leave, while some did not show up for wor
Are they anywhere close to getting them out?
The initial plan was to just drill a pipe through the debris and haul the workers out. That did not work as the machinery stalled out: “The American-made heavy-duty auger machine encountered a hard obstacle after about 22 metres.” Also, the drilling triggered a new cause for alarm:
Officials said that half the rescue workers deployed to remove the debris had stopped drilling, fearing for their own safety, after they noticed cracks on the side of the tunnel and felt vibrations on its roof… "Half the workers are working there; the rest don't want to go inside," he said.
The plan B: According to Outlook, “Multiple options are on the table, including digging a vertical shaft from the top of the tunnel to reach the workers underneath and digging a tunnel from the other end to reach and extract the workers.” Rescue agencies have identified two new spots to drill—both vertically and horizontally. They are now waiting for the machinery to arrive via road. There is also a plan to send in robots through a gap in the ceiling—but they may not be able to move in the sandy terrain.
Point to note: No one is committing to timelines at this time.
Ok, now tell me why this tunnel collapsed…
In this specific case, the answer is likely negligence. But the larger Chardham project is problematic, as well.
Not the first time: There have been a number of instances of such collapses. This very tunnel collapsed back in 2019—but mercifully no worker was trapped. Last month, 40 workers nearly died when a fire broke out in a tunnel being constructed for a railway project in Rudraprayag, also in Uttarakhand. Highway construction in India is hazardous business, in general. Twenty workers and engineers died on an expressway in Maharashtra when a gantry crane used to construct a viaduct collapsed and fell on them.
No escape routes: The company in charge of construction—Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd—made no provision for emergency exit paths:
[A] map of the tunnel has emerged pointing towards an alleged serious lapse by the company involved in its construction. Standard operating procedure requires that an escape route be built inside every tunnel more than 3 km in length, so as to rescue people in case of an accident or natural calamity. The map… shows that an escape route was part of the original design of the 4.5-km Silkyara tunnel, but it was never executed.
Important to note: Such exits are necessary even after the tunnels are built—to help rescue those trapped by landslides etc.
No geological surveys: Construction—especially in fragile, mountainous areas—require extensive geological surveys to ensure the terrain is safe. But there is no evidence of such surveys being carried out. Or if they were indeed conducted, there is no information on their results. According to one leading scientist, it seems clear that standard operating procedures were not followed:
Previously, such excavations in the mountains were carried out under the constant supervision of competent geologists, continuous tunnel logging, and other preventive measures… No review of the tunnel construction procedures was ordered even after a tunnel collapsed in the same area in 2019, says Dr Rajendran.
And this may in fact be the norm in the industry—where “design and construction of a tunnel project is done simultaneously.” In fact, experts contend that local contractors are not even aware of the geology of the area.
But didn’t you say the Chardham project itself is iffy?
Yes, and environmentalists even took their concerns to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court case: dealt primarily with widening highways—which are part of the Chardham plan. But plaintiffs made a broader argument against hastily approving such an ambitious project—without proper environmental assessments:
This is one of the most disaster-prone areas. The Ganga-Himalaya basin is one of the most fragile, vulnerable valleys in the entire Himalayan range. It is a great responsibility that the decision of such large scale infrastructure projects, which have proven to cause so much environmental impact, should not have been taken like this. It should have considered the repercussions on ground.
But their objections were overruled by the Court—because the government cited national security interests (remember: this is the China border) that are beyond its purview. At the time, activists complained:
The judgement that has come out is totally one-sided. It is only talking about the defence needs of the country. It is not talking about the food and water security we are dependent upon, it is not talking about the safety of the residents, it is not talking about the security of the tourists and the pilgrims.
A young mountain range: The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range, geologists say: “These are not the Alps. The Himalayas are a young, dynamic, and growing mountain range, and the terrain itself is under tremendous pressure." That youth comes with a serious downside—because the mountains are “still growing”—which means there is a high amount of seismic activity. A 2021 study found that 51% of Uttarakhand—including Uttarkashi—is identified as part of “high and very high” landslide-prone zones.
Also this: “Due to its impervious terrain and diverse geology, it is difficult to estimate how much weight an area can safely support, which is key to plan large infrastructure and urban expansion.”
Throw in climate change: Add to that, the fact that the Himalayas are warming faster than other parts of the world. Hence, careful environmental planning is even more important:
Several studies have pointed out that much of the agricultural and infrastructure planning across India, and in particular in the vulnerable Himalayas, involves looking at historical ecological and weather data, which may not be an accurate way of gauging a future under climate change.
We are building infrastructure for conditions that will soon cease to exist. So if a tunnel doesn’t collapse today, it may well do so ten years from now—and with far more tragic consequences.
The bottomline: What is there to say? Negligence, zero planning, greed… India will never get the infrastructure it needs if we keep doing jugaad as usual.
Bloomberg News, The Print and Deccan Herald have lots more on the environmental warnings about the Chardham project. The Quint and The Print look specifically at the Supreme Court case. Business Today, Down To Earth and NewsClick have more on the shortcuts taken in this specific project. The Telegraph and Outlook are best on the rescue plans. The Telegraph and Indian Express look at efforts to keep the workers safe and sane. This is hardly the first environmental tragedy in Uttarakhand—see our Big Story on Joshimath—which literally cracked apart due to unplanned construction.