The Silkyara tunnel collapse in Uttarkashi has posed a tremendous challenge to India’s technological capabilities. Every disaster management agency, the Armed Forces, various scientific experts and engineers, the latest equipment, have been roped in to rescue the trapped workers. It was expected, in the early stages, that rescuers would be able to drill through the debris and get the workers out, but it could not be done due to the danger of further collapse triggered by the drilling. It is reported that five other options are being considered, including vertical or horizontal tunneling to get to the workers.
The major problem is that, as time passes, those trapped will feel the impact on their physical and mental health. So, the situation is not just one of facing an engineering challenge – it is important to ensure those trapped are provided what they need to survive, which includes proper counselling. It will be a major test of the sophistication of India’s rescue capabilities. Thus far, almost everything required by agencies on the ground has been provided, including the airlift of heavy drilling machines by Hercules aircraft. It must be noted that this could be done only because there was an airfield available nearby, there were wide enough roads to transport them, etc. This underlines the importance of building infrastructure in the hills, albeit suitable to the overall environment.
So, while such means are available for rescue operations, what can be said about the prevention methods to ensure such incidents do not happen in the first place? Are the regulations up to date, as required by the increasing challenges? Has the administrative system taken the steps to enforce these? There are already reports about the failure of the company entrusted with the project in ensuring even mandatory safety measures, which could have prevented the need for the ongoing massive rescue operation. Were the necessary protocols followed while granting the project to the company, or did other considerations come into play? This will undoubtedly be part of the inquiry to be undertaken, later, but will the necessary lessons be learned and correctives introduced? Or, will the governments at the Centre and the State remain unconcerned in the confidence that the matter will soon be forgotten? Such events make it even more difficult to continue with infrastructure development, which faces much opposition already. A first big step in restoring confidence will, of course, be the safe extraction of the workers. Hopefully, it will happen without further unnecessary delay.