Uttarakhand tunnel crisis: Families protest after machine breaks down in tunnel rescue

At least 40 workers have been trapped inside the collapsed tunnel for days

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Protests broke out in India’s Uttarkhand state, where emergency workers are making efforts to rescue at least 40 workers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel for more than 78 hours.

The demonstrations began after the main machine being used to dig through the rubble to reach the workers broke down.

Authorities were using an auger machine to drill and insert steel pipes into the rubble to create a passage for the workers on Tuesday.

But the machine broke down after a pipe was inserted through two metres but hit a boulder inside the tunnel.

It caused another landslide further hampering the rescue work because of debris and mud.

The 4.5-kilometre tunnel that collapsed was being built between Silkyara and Dandalgaon, to connect two of the holiest Hindu shrines in the state at Uttarkashi and Yamunotri.

TV footage showed angry protesters – family members and workers from the construction company – gathered outside the site and clashing with the authorities and rescue workers.

They accused authorities of being lax and failing to provide a back-up machine.

“We had been calm and patient for the last five days but what is the administration doing? Nothing? No work. They are doing a formality. They’re lying to us,” one of the protesters said amid chants of “evacuate our people”.

Luv Kumar Rathori, another worker, said: “Every day, they tell us that they’ll evacuate them today. They are hungry, starving.”

The accident took place early morning on Sunday when a group of workers was heading out of the tunnel and others about to start their shift were going in.

Initial reports said the collapse was caused by a landslide but an investigation is under way.

The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, the agency engaged in building the tunnel, said new machines were being flown in to speed up the rescue work.

“Another high-power drilling machine is being airlifted from New Delhi to the nearby Air Force base. All the arrangements at site are being done and the high-power machine will be installed at the earliest,” the agency said.

Emergency workers were removing the piled debris using excavators in a nearly 55-metre stretch for the first two days but it was challenging as more debris was falling from the roof of the collapsed tunnel.

The tunnel is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham project, to improve connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage sites in the state.

Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand is known for its natural beauty and houses dozens of major Hindu temples. It is a popular tourist destination.

However, the ecologically sensitive region has been facing the brunt of climate change and rampant construction.

The state was hit by floods in 2013 that devastated Kedarnath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines, killing more than 5,700 people. A glacial lake burst in 2021, causing a flash flood at a hydropower project construction site that killed more than 200.

About 50 people were killed this summer after unprecedented heavy rain caused flash flooding and landslides.

Updated: November 28, 2023, 11:12 AM