Home Feature Leadership in Action: PM Modi’s Role in Silkyara Tunnel Rescue

Leadership in Action: PM Modi’s Role in Silkyara Tunnel Rescue

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By RAMESH POKHRIYAL ‘NISHANK’

I strongly believe that the successful rescue of all 41 individuals from the Silikyara Tunnel stands as a testament to the nation’s resilience and unity. The under-construction Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand early morning on 12 November, 2023, when the entire nation was busy preparing for Deepawali festivities. Low[1]wage construction workers, mostly from other northern and eastern Indian states, were consequently trapped in a 4.5km (3-mile) space underground in Uttarkashi district. The tunnel is a part of the nation’s ambitious Char Dham pilgrimage programme which aims to connect four important pilgrimage sites. Authorities did not confirm the exact reason for the tunnel caving in, but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes, and floods. Geologists and other experts have suggested that Himalayan terrain contains highly fragile rock and is “constantly plagued by stability issues”.

The close involvement of Prime Minister with the rescue mission despite his busy schedule and election campaigning demonstrated his unwavering dedication to serving the people and showcased his commitment to prioritising humanitarian efforts above all else. Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained his active engagement with the crisis in Uttarakhand, maintaining a close connection with Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. Their conversation focused on the ongoing rescue operation at the Silkyara tunnel, where workers remained trapped after its partial collapse. Modi, in his consistent concern since November 12 when the incident occurred, emphasised the need for the workers’ health check-ups and subsequent medical care post their evacuation. The best part was that Chief Minister Dhami was in constant touch with the Prime Minister about the challenges with the construction of a parallel tunnel using the New Austrian Tunnel Method, particularly the impediment caused by metallic items obstructing the auger machine.

Understanding the intricacies causing delays, Modi not only inquired regularly about the condition of the trapped workers and the provisions made for their sustenance but also deputed officials from his office for swift coordination. He also showed concern for the safety measures and well-being of those involved in the relief and rescue operations. Chief Minister Dhami, in turn, assured the Prime Minister of ground-level monitoring and set up a temporary Chief Minister’s Camp Office in Matali, Uttarkashi, to facilitate a more streamlined and effective oversight of the entire operation. The successful rescue of all 41 individuals from the Silkyara Tunnel stands as one of the best examples of coordination between national and state agencies.

Rescue operations at the site of the Silkyara tunnel collapse in Uttarkashi achieved a significant breakthrough on its tenth day. An endoscopy camera provided crucial visuals of the trapped workers, confirming their well-being. Subsequent efforts involved deploying a drilling machine and a lifeline pipeline, all directed at reaching the 41 labourers trapped inside. Earlier advancements included the installation of a six-inch lifeline dedicated to delivering essential supplies. The heavy machinery initially used encountered issues amidst the debris, prompting authorities to enlist a group known for a prohibited profession in the country – “rat-hole mining”. Rat mining or rat-hole mining is the process of narrow tunnel excavation by manually digging through. The technique earns its name from its resemblance to rats burrowing holes into the ground. The practice was commonly used in the northeastern state of Meghalaya where the holes were typically just big enough for the workers to descend and extract thin seams of coal. For this reason, children were usually tasked with this job. The lack of ventilation and safety measures brought controversy to the method, which was banned by an environmental court in 2014. Cheers and jubilation erupted as rescuers saved the 41 construction workers. As the first worker was pulled out, CM Pushkar Singh Dhami, presented him with a garland and hung it around his neck as rescuers, other officials and relatives cheered.

A crowd of locals shouted slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and set off firecrackers.

One of the rescuers told the New Delhi Television channel that the trapped workers were overjoyed when they spotted them in the tunnel. Some rushed toward me and hugged me.”

While auger machines made substantial progress, the final hurdle required the expertise of six miners accustomed to navigating confined spaces. Employing their skills, they burrowed through tight spaces to reach the trapped workers on Tuesday. Eventually, after a gruelling 17-day ordeal, rescuers successfully extracted the workers using wheeled stretchers passed through a wide pipe maneuvered through the debris.

Firoz Qureshi, one of the miners, expressed their determination, stating, “It was a difficult task, but for us, nothing is difficult”, as they stood outside the tunnel, covered in white dust after continuous drilling overnight. Facing setbacks when a second drilling machine malfunctioned with 15 metres remaining to reach the trapped men, the “rat miners” tirelessly worked in teams, employing a meticulous process of drilling, debris collection, and pushing it out of the pipe.

Foreign experts had been drafted in, including Australian independent disaster investigator Arnold Dix, President of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association.

There were difficult times for all of us, anxious moments and uncertain times. I visited the site with the Chief Minister and the very next day drilling had been suspended after a machine snag and fears of a fresh collapse.

I remember excitement on the face of one of the six rat miners, reflecting on the emotional moment when they finally made contact with the trapped workers. It was just like the reunion of family.

Their expertise, honed in a controversial industry, played a pivotal role in the successful rescue of the trapped labourers from the collapsed tunnel. This unconventional method, known as “rat-hole” mining, is banned due to its hazards and controversies, primarily used in Meghalaya until a 2014 environmental court prohibition.

Despite its ban, these skilled miners showcased their expertise in a situation where their specialised skills were critical. Meanwhile, locals from the region established a makeshift temple of Baba Baukhnag, the local Deity at the rescue site claiming the place where the tunnel is located has a special blessing of the Deity. Villagers of the nearby area performed a puja to please the Deity for the safe evacuation of the trapped workers.

As the workers emerged to freedom from the tunnel, their smiles mirrored the relief shared not only by the Prime Minister’s and the Chief Minister’s offices but also by several officials from a dozen different agencies who were coordinating day and night to rescue the labourers. I feel that President Droupadi Murmu’s heartfelt message on X echoed the nation’s sentiments, expressing immense relief and gratitude for the safe return of these workers. President Murmu rightfully appreciated their resilience, emphasising the nation’s gratitude for their tireless efforts. She praised the exceptional determination and unwavering commitment displayed by the teams and experts involved, recognising their unparalleled grit in executing what stands as one of history’s most challenging rescue missions.

(Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ is a former Education Minister, Government of India. He was Chief Minister of Uttarakhand state. Besides being a politician, he is an accomplished author and poet, who has penned more than 106 books.)