Alarm bells must pierce the echo chambers of the powers-that-be

The plight of the poor daily-wage earners buried underground didn’t have the scale of a calamity like the Kedarnath tragedy to become a national nightmare.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

Not all tunnels are ‘born’ equal. Tunnels built under hospitals in Gaza and used allegedly by Hamas as command and control centres to wage war against Israel have been in the news almost every day for the past two months.

Another tunnel, nearer home, in Uttarakhand where 41 workers were trapped inside after a mishap for more than a fortnight had to wait till the Cricket World Cup fever had subsided to find its place on the front page. It also didn’t help that the coverage of high-voltage election campaigns for assembly elections in five states—as usual full of excitement generated by inflammatory, polarising comments and trading of inane insults by foul-mouthed leaders cutting across party lines—constantly cluttered the mind-space.

The plight of the poor daily-wage earners buried underground didn’t have the scale of a calamity like the Kedarnath tragedy to become a national nightmare. The rescue mission—no less heroic and technologically challenging—struggled against the unexpected and repeated failure of machinery and obstacles presented by the fragile ecosystem. It managed to deliver food, medicine and oxygen, finally putting an end to the unimaginable ordeal of the men confined in the cold claustrophobic hole. We were rightly advised not to put pressure on the rescuers who risked their lives in the hazardous task by asking questions about the time table set before one could see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

One hopes that all ends well, but questions need to be asked, and must be asked now. The most disturbing thing is how long are we—the people and our leaders—going to happily live our lives with ‘tunnel vision’. Geologists and seismologists have never ceased red-flagging gigantic infrastructure projects—large dams, eight-lane highways, laying down railway lines, etc.—in the extremely fragile Himalayan region to improve connectivity, generate employment, and above all, for strategic reasons. And, no one should need a reminder that when national security is concerned, ‘ours is not to question why, but to do or die’. This is where the real problem dwells. 

How are soldiers, armoured vehicles and big guns going to reach the imperilled borders in time if—and there is a very big if—the highway caves in, bridges collapse and sudden landslides block the tunnels irreparably? No one can predict when the natural faultiness will next hit back at human hubris and how. Not very long ago, a cloudburst had transformed a tiny rivulet into a terrifying torrent, which angrily swept all in its way, including a gleaming power project in Uttarakhand. Till date no one can confirm the final death toll or loss of property. Many of the fatal casualties comprised faceless, anonymous migrant labour—poorest of the poor—from states such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Odisha.

Some one did remark wryly that the construction workers trapped underground represent a mini India. Let us also not forget that those engaged in rescue also represent a mini India. Army and Air Force, ISRO and scientists in the ONGC and Wadia Institute as well as various departments of the state and central government have joined hands with numerous NGOs and villagers. Foreign experts from Thailand and Australia have been brought in. There have been repeated reassurance that the PM is constantly in touch with the trials and tribulations at ground zero. A small temple has been rebuilt at the site to augment high-tech like auger drilling machines, radars and plasma cutters with prayers. In short, what more can be done after we put our trust in god and the PMO. 

Nitin Gadkari has promised an inquiry after the rescue is accomplished. One only hopes that it isn’t forgotten in moments of relief and rejoicing. There will be other distractions and diversions, election results and more election campaigns. The defeat in the World Cup can only temporarily dampen enthusiasm of addicts and hinder the vested interests involved. There are many who naively believe that nothing unites this country like cricket.

The team in the blue also represents a mini India. Alas, high-voltage encounters also expose the fault lines that divide us and not so innocently accelerate polarisation. Cricket has long ceased to be a game. No one looks at it as a colonial legacy. Big money is involved and politicians of all  shades never miss an opportunity to control and cash in on the spectacle. National glory and humiliation are dangerously injected in analyses after victory or defeat. Well-paid brand ambassadors in surrogate advertising of substances hazardous to health have become national icons and aspirational role models for the young.

Life is, alas, a lottery. Birth decides our life chances. The unsung heroes, who build the nation living, working and, not infrequently, dying in inhuman conditions, surely deserve better; from sewer pits in cities to tunnels in the Himalayas. Alarm bells ringing must pierce into echo chambers where decision makers dwell.  

Pushpesh Pant

Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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