Patralekha Chatterjee | Blunders in the Himalayas: Have we learnt any lessons?

Update: 2023-11-22 18:42 GMT
NDRF personnel and others at the under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway, days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed trapping several workers inside, in Uttarkashi district, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (PTI Photo)

How many reports does it take to realise that the Himalayan region is ecologically very fragile, that it cannot be business as elsewhere in this terrain?

The answer is not blowing in the wind, with apologies to Bob Dylan. It stares at you from various studies. And in the Government of India’s own statements in Parliament. Earlier this year, when land subsidence in the sacred town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand was in the news, questions had popped up in Parliament.  In response to one such question, on February 2, the ministry of earth sciences had noted that: “Many parts of the Himalayas have unstable and dynamic geology, which may lead to land subsidence and landslides. The Geological Survey of India has prepared landslide maps of these areas.”

Uttarakhand and the Himalayas are in the news once again. And the inconvenient truth rears its head once more.

By the time you read this column, the 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarkashi could well be out. Or may not be. 

At the time of writing, frenetic efforts are going on to rescue the labourers stuck inside the collapsed tunnel since November 12, when the nation celebrated Diwali. A part of the tunnel under construction caved in after a landslide. Food, water and other essential items sent via a pipe have helped keep the trapped construction workers alive. The good news is that the construction workers were seen alive on camera after rescuers managed a breakthrough by inserting a six-inch-wide pipe. On Day 10 of being trapped inside the under-construction tunnel, the workers finally had hot, cooked meals.

This brings some cheer to their families. But there are many questions that must not be brushed away even as the focus is on the immediate priority -- the rescue operations.

The tunnel, as is now widely known, is part of the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious 900-km Char Dham highway project. Work on the project began in 2018. An official statement by the Press Information Bureau on February 20, 2018, when the Government of India sanctioned the Silkyara tunnel project, spells out its goal: “The construction of this tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity to Yamunotri, one of the dhams (religious destination) on the Char Dham Yatra, encouraging regional socio-economic development, and trade and tourism within the country. It will reduce the travel distance from Dharasu to Yamunotri by about 20 km and travel time by about an hour.”

It also explicitly mentions that “the project aims at construction of 4.531-km long two-lane bi-directional tunnel (along with 328m approach road) with escape passage on Dharasu-Yamunotri in the state of Uttarakhand.”

The question that everyone is now asking: where is that escape passage? Till date, neither the company executing the project nor any government agency has answered that question convincingly.

Clearly, rescuing the trapped workers merits the maximum attention right now, but what about the future?

Which brings me to the key question. Once the rescue operation is over, and hopefully the trapped workers are back with their families, how do we ensure that such calamities do not recur, not just in this project but across the entire Himalayan region?

“Beyond the immediate issue of rescuing the trapped workers in the tunnel, there is a larger issue that is very important. The entire Himalayan region is a high-alert, high-risk belt, and one of the climate change hotspots and must be treated accordingly. This means we need to take a pause of all construction projects in that area till a fast-track review is done, with inputs from international experts who review all the projects (not just project by project), and check if they meet international standards. The data must then be put in the public domain,” says Dr Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business.

The second critical issue “is the need to factor in local knowledge and incorporate it in the planning, and last, but not the least, there is an absolute necessity to factor in climate change. Many of the projects were planned when climate change was not a striking issue and hence need to be updated based on recent data”, he adds.

As someone who has done extensive field work in the Himalayan region, Dr Prakash says he perfectly understands the need for basic infrastructure and motorable roads as well as the need for national security. But “how you accomplish creating this larger public good is the key. What kind of environmental clearances do these projects have?” as he puts it.

“Take a Himalayan country like Bhutan. Their infrastructure projects need to be cleared at the highest political level with expert advice being the supreme factor in deciding about the fate of the project. India’s Himalayan region is highly seismic and a climate change hotspot. This means that there will be extreme weather like what we saw in Himachal Pradesh this summer and the GLOF (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood) event in Sikkim recently -- evaluating projects will ensure that it is executed with extreme care factoring in the terrain and environment. Otherwise, we will keep putting our people at risk, again and again,” he told me.

These are critical issues and they must be faced.

The Uttarkashi tunnel incident, one among several disasters in recent years in the Himalayan region, only sledgehammers the dangers of too reckless construction in the name of boosting infrastructure in this geologically sensitive and ecologically fragile region.

The Himalayas are the youngest mountains on this planet. The entire Himalayan region and its surrounding areas are among the most seismically active zones in the world. Landslide and related mass movement activities are common and one of the most destructive natural hazards in all mountainous terrain, including the Himalayas. Of the 11 states in the Indian Himalayan region, Uttarakhand has witnessed enhanced activities of these phenomena more than others, pointed out another study by researchers at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) and published in the Journal of Earth Systems Science on December 15, 2021.

Tectonic activity and the relative softness of rocks have made the Himalayas some of the most difficult ground to tunnel through. It is imperative that environmental concerns are given top priority. At stake are human lives.


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