SUSTAINABILITY Lessons from the Silkyara

Prof (Dr) Shalini Verma ‘Lifoholic’

The Silkyara tunnel – a part of the Narendra Modi government’s Char Dham project connecting key Hindu pilgrim sites through two-lane paved roads in the Himalayan state – has been under the 24×7 media scrutiny for a little more than a fortnight as 41 labourers got trapped as portions of the Silkyara-Dandalgaon under-construction tunnel on the Brahmkhal-Yamunotri highway in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district collapsed following a landslide at around 5.30 am on 12 November – the auspicious day of Diwali.

No doubt, when this ambitious Char Dham project will completed, it would shorten the pilgrimage route to Yamunotri by 20 kms. It will also enable all-weather connectivity to the major Hindu pilgrimage site. The construction of the tunnel is being undertaken by Navayuga Engineering Company Limited.

After an intense 17-day rescue operation, all 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara Tunnel were rescued on 28th November.

Reaching the trapped workers within the 2-kilometre-long, 8.5-metre-high tunnel posed significant challenges despite attempts using advanced horizontal drilling techniques through an auger machine. The incident sparked a massive rescue operation involving a diverse team of individuals working tirelessly to bring the trapped workers to safety.

timeline of the disaster and the rescue efforts

  • Day 1 (November 12): The labourers get trapped as portions of the Silkyara-Dandalgaon under-construction tunnel on the Brahmkhal-Yamunotri highway collapse following a landslide at around 5.30 am on the day of Diwali. Arrangements were made to supply oxygen, electricity and eatables to the trapped labourers through air-compressed pipes as multiple agencies, including the NDRF, SDRF, BRO, project executing agency NHIDCL and ITBP, begin rescue efforts.
  • Day 2 (November 13): Contact got established with the trapped workers through a pipe meant to supply oxygen to them and they are reported to be safe. Fresh rubble kept falling from above due to which the debris accumulated in an area of around 30 metres spreads to 60 metres.
  • Day 3 (November 14): Steel pipes of 800- and 900-millimetre diameter were brought to the tunnel site to be inserted through the rubble with the help of an auger machine for horizontal digging. However, when more rubble fell from the cavity created by the cave-in, two labourers sustained minor injuries.
  • Day 4 (November 15): Dissatisfied with the first drilling machine, the NHIDCL asked for a state-of-the-art auger machine, which was airlifted from Delhi to speed up the operation.
  • Day 5 (November 16): The drilling machine was assembled and installed. It started working past midnight.
  • Day 6 (November 17): The machine drilled about 24 metres through the 57-metre rubble stretch by the afternoon and four MS pipes were inserted. The process came to a halt when the fifth pipe hit an obstacle. Following which, another high-performance auger machine was flown down for the rescue efforts.

In the evening, during the positioning of the fifth pipe, a big cracking sound was heard in the tunnel. Fearing the possibility of further collapse in the vicinity, the operation was suspended immediately.

  • Day 7 (November 18): Drilling could not resume on Saturday as experts felt that the vibrations created by the diesel-driven 1,750-horse power American auger inside the tunnel might cause more debris to collapse, posing a risk to the lives of the rescue personnel. Alternative options were explored by a team of officials from the PMO and experts who decided to work on five evacuation plans simultaneously, including vertical drilling through the top of the tunnel to rescue the trapped labourers.
  • Day 8 (November 19): Drilling work remained suspended while Union minister Nitin Gadkari came down to review the rescue operation.
  • Day 9 (November 20): PM Narendra Modi spoke to CM Pushkar Dhami over phone to take stock of the operations. However, the team was yet to resume the horizontal drilling that got suspended after a boulder appeared to block the progress of the auger machine.
  • Day 10 (November 21): Rescuers released the first video of the 41 labourers who were trapped inside the tunnel. The workers, wearing yellow and white helmets, could be seen receiving food items sent to them through a pipeline and talking to each other. Two blasts were set off at the Balkot-end of the tunnel, beginning the process of drilling another tunnel – an alternative to the Silkyara-end option. But experts said the approach could take up to 40 days!

However, the NHIDCL took charge and the horizontal boring operation that involved an auger machine from the Silkyara, ended.

  • Day 11 (November 22): Horizontal drilling of 800 mm diameter steel pipes reached about 45 metres with only 12 metres remaining of the around 57-metre debris stretch. Ambulances were kept on standby. However, in a late evening development, the drilling hit a hurdle when some iron rods came in the way of the auger machine.
  • Day 12 (November 23): The iron obstruction that had caused a delay of six hours in the drilling was removed. According to officials, the 48-metre point had been reached by the drill. But boring through the rubble was put on hold again apparently after cracks appeared in the platform on which the drilling machine rested.
  • Day 13 (November 24): The 25-tonne machine was restarted and drilling was resumed. However, in a fresh hurdle, the drill hit a metal girder halting the entire operation again.
  • Day 14 (November 25): The blades of the auger machine drilling through the rubble got stuck in the debris, forcing officials to consider switching to options that could drag on the rescue by several days, even weeks. Officials then had to consider two alternatives: manual drilling through the remaining 10-12 metres of the rubble or drilling down 86 metres from above.
  • Day 15 (November 26): Vertical drilling of 19.2 metres was done to create an alternative escape route. As the drilling progressed, 700-mm wide pipes were inserted to create an ‘escape passage’.
  • Day 16 (November 27): Rat-hole mining experts were called in to help with rescuers requiring to dig through horizontally around 10 metres of rubble. Simultaneously, vertical drilling from above the tunnel has reached a depth of 36 metres.
  • Day 17 (November 28): Rescue workers broke through the last stretch of the rubble at about 7 pm. NDRF and SDRF men entered the steel chute to reach the trapped workers and started bringing them out on wheeled-stretchers one by one.

The rescue effort of this challenging operation was a multi-agency collaboration, with teams from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), the Indian Army, and local authorities working in coordination. Experts from various fields, including engineers, professors, geologists, and medical personnel, also joined the operation.

The four leaders who spearheaded the entire operation from the front are:

  1. IAS officer Neeraj Khairwal was appointed as the Nodal officer of the rescue operation. Khairwal. He is also a Secretary in the Uttarakhand government and was commanding and overseeing the operations. He updated the CMO and PMO on a regular basis.
  2. Retired Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain – a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) team and former GOC 15 corps of the Indian Army played a key role in overseeing the Uttarakhand tunnel rescue operations.
  3. A micro-tunnelling expert and a Chartered Engineer, Chris Cooper also joined the rescue operation. Cooper specializes in Civil Engineering infrastructure, dams, railway, metro tunnels, and mining projects. Cooper is also the international consultant for the Rishikesh Karnprayag rail project.
  4. Australian Professor Arnold Dix – a tunnelling expert and a scientific researcher, supervised the use of the American auger machine for horizontal drilling of the tunnel.

In addition, rat-hole mining experts also played a significant role in this rescue operation. The rescue teams had to shift to manual drilling to clear the final 10 metres of debris using the rat-hole mining method in which rescuers inserted a pipe into the tunnel reaching the breakthrough point at 57 meters.

A team of six rat-hole miners were called in from Madhya Pradesh to conduct micro-tunnelling and manual drilling through the debris, and rescue through the narrow 800 mm pipe to extract the trapped workers.

Tireless efforts of the rescue teams bore fruits with the evacuation of the first worker at 7.56 pm on 28th November along with all the other trapped workers emerging in good health.

  • The Silkyara Tunnel Rescue Operation demonstrated a significant focus on resilient infrastructure. The operation’s success relied heavily on the use of innovative techniques and equipment, showcasing the importance of advanced and robust infrastructure in managing emergencies – SDG 9 that focuses on industry, innovation, and infrastructure.
  • The rescue operation, carried out in the Silkyara tunnel, highlights the need for safety measures and emergency response mechanisms in urban projects, which underlines the importance of preparing urban areas for emergencies, ensuring the safety of workers, and the community at large – SDG 11 that emphasizes on the sustainable cities and communities.
  • The rescue operation’s primary aim was to save lives, directly aligning with this goal. The health and safety of the trapped individuals were paramount, and the rescue team’s efforts to ensure their well-being resonate with the essence of SDG3 that advocates the importance of good health and well-being.
  • The rescue operation involved minute-to-minute collaborations between various entities – governments – Pushkar Singh Dhami’s Uttarakhand state government & Narendra Modi’s central government , Nitin Gadkari – Union Minister Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, V K Singh – Minister of State of Road Transport and Highways of India; International tunnelling expert Prof Arnold Dix; local authorities , and various rescue teams – the cornerstone of  SDG17 that highlights the value of partnerships for accomplishing the common goals.

All is well that ends well. However, the Silkyara tunnel crash offers a lesson, that tunnel-visioned development puts lives of poor people and the environment and planet in peril.

The need of the hour is to sacrifice comfort and material possessions in favour of sustainability and prosperity of our natural resources thereby keeping our Mother Planet resourceful enough to meet the needs of our future generations.

About the Author: Prof (Dr) Shalini Verma ‘Lifoholic’ is the Founder of SAMVAW Foundation and an Award-winning Author with 75 published books, including several bestsellers, to her credit. She may be reached at: ;

Follow her of LinkedIn:

Leave your thought here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *