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What are the lessons of the tunnel collapse in India?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
November 27, 2023

The cave-in that left over 40 Indian workers trapped in the Himalayas highlights the need for more safety — but also signals more respect is needed for the region's fragile environment.

Rescuers and vehicles crowd tunnel construction site following collapse
Trapped workers can receive food and drinking water through a narrow pipeImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

The collapse of the Silkyara Tunnel in northern India has prompted a massive rescue effort to reach 41 construction workers. India's government is also taking steps aimed at avoiding similar incidents in the future.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which builds and manages the highway network, has been ordered to inspect all tunnel construction projects nationwide.

"To ensure safety and adherence to the highest quality standards during construction, NHAI will undertake safety audit of all 29 under construction tunnels across the country," it said in a statement.

The audit will look at 12 tunnels in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and six in the troubled Jammu and Kashmir region.

It will also examine projects in Uttarakhand, the northern Himalayan state where the Silkyara Tunnel collapsed, and other Indian states.

Given India's poor reputation for safety, there are some obvious areas where improvement is needed.

For example, the Silkyara Tunnel apparently did not have an emergency exit, which has posed another challenge to rescuers struggling with busted machinery and possibly unstable terrain.

However, many have said that this collapse is a sign of a wider problem in the Himalayas, where poorly planed development   is having an impact on the frequency and intensity of disasters.

Uttarakhand is often hit by landslides, earthquakes and flooding, and some experts and residents have warned that the mountains there are geologically unstable.

Officials suspect that the tunnel collapse could have been caused by a weak section of rock that was hidden. 

As Indian and global media focus on the story, there is more and more attention being drawn to  the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystem.

Hope for 41 Indian workers trapped in Himalayan tunnel

Big plans for big roads through the Himalayas

The Silkyara Tunnel is 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) long and located on the Char Dham pilgrimage route, which is currently one of the most ambitious projects of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government

It aims to link four important Hindu sites in northern India via 890 kilometers of wide two-lane all-weather roads that are being built at a cost of $1.5 billion (€1.36 billion) to link the holy towns of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

Environmentalists and other experts say that rampant development is already making the local ecosystem even more vulnerable to climate change. They say that years of unbridled construction, hydropower development and the lack of a proper drainage system have all exacerbated the crisis.

This year alone, the Himalayan region has experienced several disasters, including the sinking of Joshimath town in Uttarakhand to floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, as well as a glacial lake outburst in Sikkim in October and the recent tunnel collapse.

Saving the Himalayas from 'development destruction'

Environmentalist Shekhar Pathak believes work on the Silkyara Tunnel started before sufficient geological surveys were conducted. He told DW that no lessons had been learned from the 2021 floods in the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli valleys, which claimed more than 200 lives, including those of many who were trapped inside the tunnels of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower plant.

Pathak, who is also the founder of non-profit NGO People's Association for Himalaya Area Research, said that advanced safety measures for the tunnel were "missing" from the beginning. "The execution of emergency evacuation was not well thought out," he told DW.

"Anything in the Himalayas should be done with in-depth studies and analysis and with detailed dialogue with community and scientists," he said. "Saving the Himalayas from big developmental destruction is equally important otherwise more lives will be at risk in the future."

Floods and landslides kill dozens in India

Melting glaciers increase risk

There is a growing number of observers of the Char Dham project saying that critical mistakes have been made in the planning and implementation of the 900-kilometer route. Experts say that the environmental impact assessment process mandated for projects exceeding 100 kilometers was bypassed when the project was given the go-ahead.

Officially, the project is not a single one but 53 small projects, which is why it has been able to proceed after just a token environmental assessment.

Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment think tank in the Indian capital, warned that climate change was bringing more volatility to the region because of unseasonal and extreme rain events.

Various studies have found that glaciers in the Himalayas are melting dramatically, potentially increasing the risks of floods and landslides.

"The bottom line is that this region is different — it is not the plains of India, which are situated on alluvial soil; it is not the Indian peninsular region where there is hard rock; it is not even the slopes of the Alps, where mountains have aged," Narain told DW.

Illegal 'shortcut' to rush the project

In 2019, India's Supreme Court appointed a high-ranking committee to assess the potential environmental and social damage of the project and to recommend measures to mitigate the impact.

Veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra was appointed chairman of the committee but resigned in 2022, claiming its recommendations had not been implemented. He told DW the entire project had been rushed. "In the process, shortcuts have been taken which violated the existing laws. The avoidance of an environmental impact assessment was particularly detrimental," he said.

Chopra told DW that there would be more incidents such as the tunnel collapse as long as environmental issues are swept aside.

"For development in the Himalayas, it is necessary to first address ecological concerns. Sustainable development demands approaches that are both geologically and ecologically sound."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11