Why then after 18 years we have had to get foreign help and equipment for the Silkyara tunnel rescue? Should this equipment and capability not be with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)?
Rescue operations at the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi, which collapsed on November 12 trapping 41 workers, are continuing into the 13th day. There is hope that the ordeal of the trapped would be over soon as the last pipe to prepare an escape passage for the trapped workers is being pushed in through the rubble. Prayers of all Indians are with the trapped workers.
There are scores of tunnels across India, which include close to 20 mountain rail tunnels. As in January 2023, of the tunnel projects assigned to the Border Roads Organization (BRO), five were complete; nine were under construction (six in Arunachal Pradesh, four in J&K and one in Ladakh) and 11 in DPR phase. In addition, more tunnel projects are assigned to other entities. The alternate road being built from Sasoma to Daulet Bef Oldi in Ladakh would also need a tunnel to keep it operational in all seasons.
The instability of the Himalayas, especially in Uttarakhand, has witnessed disasters in recent times, which are a mix of natural and manmade. Manmade disasters because of grossly unplanned construction, crowding and blasting tunnels in weak mountainous areas instead of drilling or using other means to show faster development. Government naturally denies all this but this contributed greatly to the sinking of Joshimath. Same is happening in Shimla and Mussoorie, the latter also because of mining.
The horrific disaster that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013 was in backdrop of warning by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) that Uttarakhand is poorly geared for disaster relief (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/utharakhand-disasters-come-disasters-go/).
There is considerable amount of chest thumping and sloganeering about environmental protection. But witness just the deforestation versus the forestation in the country. India has nearly 64 lakh km of road network which is second largest in the world. A tremendous push has been given by Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. The pace of national highway construction in the country stood at 20.78 km per day in first seven months of 2023, which is an incredible speed.
But at the same time, crores of trees have been felled not only for constructing new highways but also to widen existing highways and roads. To add to this is the mining rights being dished out (some with political undertones) in Central India, which is one of the reason for tribal unrest and insurgency.
Learning from ancestors
In contrast, the tree plantation is much less, notwithstanding official claims, and that too mostly in coastal areas and thickening mangroves, not pan-India. This is adversely affecting the environment and contributes to uneven rainfall in the country.
Why our ancestors constructed temples and shrines on hilltops is because certain amount of physical labour and time spent to reach these places contributes to focusing and connecting with the divine. Same is the case in many other countries.
Despite its technological prowess, Japan has not taken the road right up to the top of Mount Fujiyama although thousands of Japanese men, women and children, including elders, walk up to the top annually to pay homage to their ancestors. Yet, for politics in the name of religion we have taken a motorable road all the way up to the Amarnath shrine. Is this going truly back to the roots?
With elections around the corner our politicians are presently focused on drawing maximum mileage from the Silkyara tunnel rescue – similar to the recent ICC ODI World Cup final (https://twitter.com/Politics_2022_/status/1727719619283329456?t=Q91mxDUB4CdVZXarS9_KTQ&s=08). But there are a number of issues we need to seriously examine, without which we would be repeating the same performance from one disaster to another.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), was established under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 (DM Act of 2005), which is chaired by the prime minister. The NDMA is responsible for laying down the policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management for ensuring timely and effective response to disasters in the country.
Why then after 18 years we have had to get foreign help and equipment for the Silkyara tunnel rescue? Should this equipment and capability not be with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)? And by when can we become self sufficient to do so, given that the possibility of more such disasters can hardly be discounted?
It may be recalled that bodies of the 18 sailors, including three officers, aboard the submarine INS Sindhurakshak, which exploded and sank at the naval dockyard in Mumbai in April 2013 could not be retrieved from the sea because of lack of undersea rescue equipment. Let us be fully prepared to cope with future tunnel disasters least some of them reach a tragic end.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)