A Himalayan Disaster
Silkyara-Barkot tunnel collapse has exposed several breaches of regulations
The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world. As is with everything young and tenuous, their terrain is unstable and highly fragile. Its original name, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘hima’ (snow) and ‘alaya’ (abode), translates to ‘home of the snow that never melts.
It is also known as ‘The Third Pole’ because it has the largest deposit of ice and snow after Antarctica and the Arctic. And since its glaciers carry billions of tonnes of ice to nourish important perennial rivers across the world, to feed nearly 20 percent of the world’s population, it also plays a major role in regulating our planet's climate.
The major tourist spot Hrishikesh, is the gateway to several Himalayan mountain climbing expeditions, trekking trails and pilgrim centres. The Himalayas are home to many medicinal plants and they also act as a strong defence barrier from the cold and dry winds of Central Asia.
Now that we are familiar with the serene and stable facts of one of Nature’s most invaluable gifts to us Indians, here’s an ‘explosive’ one. When these same majestic mountains are senselessly targeted in the name of development, they can also turn into a massive, ticking time bomb.
We have already witnessed the flash floods in Chamoli and Kedarnath where thousands of people lost their lives. And yet, what are the lessons that were learnt? Nada. Zilch. Zero. Now with the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel collapse, it remains to be seen whether the tide of our indifference will bring about a change, or our ‘jugaad’ and chalta hai’ attitude will continue, waiting for another tsunami to strike.
While the nation is celebrating and honouring the rescue team, and rightly so, for leading us to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the whole episode has also brought to light several breaches of regulations. It has also provided some burning questions, which if not asked, may tend to get buried in the debris of the mishap.
The ‘aim’ of the Char Dham Prayojana gana’ was to allow more devotees to visit the holy shrines. Very enlightening indeed but after the calamity, the on-site investigation coupled with open-source Intelligence has revealed some alarming lapses in the process of construction.
Thereby making it even more important for us to realise that one should not tend to ignore the science en route; because if you do, all future plans can turn to rubble.
Some of the basic rules that were flouted include:
1: Safety warning. The geologists insist that most construction companies tend to overlook safety concerns and measures suggested by them. When undertaking such massive engineering projects, it is of utmost importance to conduct thorough geotechnical and geophysical mapping of the specific rock on which the tunnel is to be constructed.
For this tunnel, the seismic potential of the zone wasn’t taken into consideration, even though the earth scientists had warned of a prominent fault line, indicating it was a ‘shear zone’- (a thin layer of the upper crust of the earth that is deformed). And this could pose a risk to the tunnel’s safety. But this warning was ignored.
2: Escape tunnels. All companies bidding for such projects should include safety plans that include escape routes so that if there is an incident, users can escape. But no such ‘routes’ were even planned. All for the sake of cutting costs and making profit.
As per the Standard Operating Procedure, any tunnel exceeding a length of three km is required to have one in the event of a disaster. It was provided when the nice km long Chenani Nashri tunnel was being constructed in J & K. These routes are meant to be used even after the tunnels are built to rescue people passing through them in vehicles if there is a collapse, landslide or disaster.
3: The absence of hume pipes. These concrete tubes are put across the length of the entire tunnel for eliminating the toxic gases produced during the construction and for emergency rescue in case of a collapse. Initially they were placed but for whatever reason, they were removed.
4: No trench cages. These cages serve a crucial role in safeguarding workers from potential cave-ins. The workers had accused the NHIDCL officials of ‘ignoring such safety guidelines’. But the recent videos show that during the operation, the rescuers did use such cages.
Anyway, the fact of the matter is at least all the workers are safe. And all credit goes to every hand that played its part in this rescue operation. Just let us not make an event of it.
When we already have an established ecosystem, why can’t we be satisfied and enjoy its benefits? Where is the need for endless tunnels and boundless projects that threaten our ecologically sensitive areas? When we fragment any whole into tiny parts, we are not only sanctioning the extinction of all that is beneficial, we are also overturning the composition of an entire ecosystem.
To presume that our ‘Mother’ will forgive all her greedy kids; that her balance of nature is always robust and that she will overcome all challenges and eventually restore herself to her former glory is anything but naïve. To rely on the notion that in the face of adversity she will always maintain a perfect equilibrium, is a very comforting thought.
But, there is only so much even a mother can take. As we continue to devastate habitats, overhunt, overfish, contaminate oceans and waterways and keep pumping harmful gases into the atmosphere, let us also prepare ourselves to be rapped on our knuckles whenever the situation gets too demanding.
The relationship between Man and Nature, between Mother and Child is a give and take bond. We cannot rely on our green ‘Mom’ to always protect her colourful wayward kids. She has enough to do to try and replenish herself. To safeguard her, it is also our turn to act. And act fast. In the movie ‘Lion King’, remember what Scar did to the Pride Lands? Well, that’s what we’re doing to the world.