The rat-hole miners are experts at a mining task that is banned now
All’s well that ends well. There was an authentic ring to the cliché as a dazed but healthy-enough group of 41 workers emerged from the Silkyara tunnel into the bright rescue lights of an Uttarkashi night and set off moments of national rejoicing. Their fortitude, even equanimity, in the face of spine-chilling life-or-death adversity, enabled them to survive an ordeal no one would wish on their worst enemies.
Not since the tsunami of 2004 could a national disaster relief effort have been so focused on rescue as multiple agencies worked tirelessly to come to the aid of hapless workers stuck in subterranean darkness. This was a truly emotional moment filling millions with the joy of life triumphing over death, spirit over despair and mental strength over a physically draining challenge.
Besides the hardy 41 who withstood confinement for 400 hours since Diwali, there were multiple heroes like the NDRF, auger machine operators and an international tunnelling expert who joined in prayers too, but none more than the dozen rat-miners who enabled the last mile rescue, crawling into a claustrophobic pipe on hands and knees and lying there for hours to cut through rock and debris.
The rat-hole miners are experts at a mining task that is banned now. They demonstrated their adroit ways in frighteningly confined spaces, using drills, cutters, hands and fingers to break the debris and haul it out of the tunnel after even a gigantic machine with claw-like rotor blades had failed, adding its broken parts to enhance the difficulties of tackling the last 12 metres to enable freeing the trapped workers.
It was no exaggeration to say that this was a triumph of teamwork of around 650 rescue personnel at its best even if the effort was very Indian in that the rescue gathered pace gradually rather than starting with a bang and throwing every available resource into the job without waiting for “Made in India” experiments to begin the rescue in earnest.
The vertical drilling, thought of in desperation after delays to the logical horizontal drilling, was too hazardous to contemplate given the high chances of a roof collapse and was given up when the rat-miners showed astonishing progress. They needed no AI or technology with fancy acronyms to claw through debris that an angry mountain had spewed.
Many factors may have contributed liberally to this ecological disaster. And lest we forget the lessons while moving on until the next big one strikes, the Himalayan tunnel collapse should remind man that toying with fragile mountainous landscape is fraught with risk. In subdividing the Char Dham project into less than 100-km stretches of highways, a clever stratagem was used to bypass environmental scrutiny.
There is a cost-to-benefit ratio to be considered in such projects that will primarily serve mass human movement, but into a sensitive mountainous zone that cannot take this kind of tourism load. Also, safety costing must be built into projects so that building roads, dams, buildings, etc., do not end up the way the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel did. Skimping on safety is a weakness that must be avoided if Himalayan projects are to be successfully implemented without damaging the ecology and risking human lives.