Rescue and relief operations underway after a portion of a tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalga collapsed, in Uttarkashi district, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (PTI)
Rescue and relief operations underway after a portion of a tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalga collapsed, in Uttarkashi district, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (PTI)

Tunnel tragedy is another eco-warning we need to heed

The tunnel near Uttarkashi is part of the controversial Char Dham project that involves the four-laning of hillside highways.

Tragedy struck a large posse of workers on the Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand on Sunday when a part of an under-construction tunnel near Uttarkashi collapsed, trapping 40 workers. The rescuers are reconsidering their approach after an initial plan to drill through the debris and install steel pipes using an auger machine has failed. Another environment-related disaster in the Himalayas shocked the country on October 4, when a cloudburst over Sikkim caused the South Lhonak lake to breach its banks. Before the water could be released in a controlled manner, the flood broke down the Teesta III dam at Chungthang, causing immense destruction—scores died including 23 army personnel and 15 bridges were washed away.

While we fervently pray for the early rescue of the trapped personnel at Uttarkashi, we need to deal with one more red flag against the meddling with the fragile ecosystem in the Himalayas. As always, disregard for the rules of nature results in deadly blowbacks in the form of landslides, flooding and tremors. While development of the backward regions of the Himalayas is a necessity, we have to listen to our climate and environmental scientists. In one more recent tragedy, the Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project on the Assam-Arunachal border recently suffered a major setback with a landslide that has stopped construction.

The tunnel near Uttarkashi is part of the controversial Char Dham project that involves the four-laning of hillside highways. Despite warnings, the project has been pushed as a populist measure to speed up pilgrims’ progress to the four major shrines in upper Uttarakhand. To help it pass muster at the Supreme Court in 2019, the project was presented as a necessity to ferry troops and armaments to the border with China. Once the defence of the country is invoked, resistance melts.

However, environmentalists have repeatedly pointed out that excavating four-lane highways at high altitudes where there are sharp turns is a recipe for engineering disaster. Even the late General Bipin Rawat, a resident of Uttarakhand, had said the army was alright with the current roads and, in an emergency, was ready to airlift equipment and troops. We cannot afford to ignore red flags like the tremors at Joshimath or the Uttarkashi tunnel collapse anymore. It is time to review the parameters of the Char Dham project before we are hit with more tragedies.

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