A big wave of relief and joy has swept the country after the 41 workers have been rescued from a tunnel which turned into a huge rat-trap. And who scored the final victory stroke – 12 ‘rat mine workers’, who staked their lives, and cleared the debris with their bare hands. This is a joy which is greater than any World Cup victory. Bigger than the landing on the moon!
It has been the season of dead-end tunnels, and human beings trapped in this dark underbelly of modernity, for no fault of theirs. From the genocide in Gaza, with both the Israeli hostages and the Palestinians condemned in the rubble, and the labyrinthine underground — dead and alive, to Silkyara near Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, it has been ‘the tunnel’ which was at the top-of-the-mind these days.
This is also the pristine landscape where a magical mountain river starts its civilisational journey from the frozen, blue and muddy glacier of Gaumukh, via Gangotri, Darhali and Harsil, undulating through the Himalayan hills via Uttarkashi, onwards to the arid plains. This unruly, anarchic, rippling river flows in sublime Shiva-Parvati territory, across Chirvaas, and Bhojwasa — with its ancient leafy trees, which, perhaps, gave the first manuscripts in ancient India. It flows ceaselessly, amidst the madness of fierce waterfalls and serene streams, and is celebrated with multiple mythological stories, as much as exotic names, mixing with other mountain rivers: Jahanvi, Mandakini, Bhairvi, Alaknanda, Kali Ganga, Safed Ganga, Bhilangana, and, of course, Bhagirathi.
In this terrain, you are a mere speck in the sand, a dot in the galaxy, so overwhelming is this incredible moment of srishti, like the origin of civilization; all you can hear, absorb, inhale and experience is the melodious orchestra of the river in synthesis with the sound of the wind and the waterfalls, echoing in the hills. It is she who is the maestro, the grand conductor of a million symphonies here, and even Shiva is subservient to her raw, intense and irreverent beauty.
Before this young, pulsating, primordial miracle of nature is finally tamed in the plains by the orthodox, religious establishment, domesticated and turned into a mother-symbol – Ganga maiya – she arrives from the cosmic galaxy on the day of Ganga dashami. Without a family, origin, identity, caste, religion or community, she is unlocked from a reluctant Shiva’s flowing locks after a series of long tapasya by Bhagirath. Thereby, it hurtles down the hills and valleys, playful, joyful, turning track, changing trajectories, becoming faster and faster, and, then, suddenly slow and subdued, amidst the wild flowers and chirping birds, flowing in eternally gay abandon.
Then, this creature of absolute freedom too is trapped – right inside the hills. Dammed and damned at Tehri by the big dam, its aviral dhara is thereby condemned and imprisoned – it flows out in a trickle from here on, stagnant and sad in a man-made reservoir, onwards to Rishikesh, hence becoming a ganda nulla at Haridwar, while being turned forcibly into a ‘sacred canal’ at Har ki Pauri.
Henceforth, despite the millions of worshippers, no one really cares for the lost purity of the holy river– choked with the infinite sewage of towns and cities, garbage, gutter-waters, industrial waste, plastic, non-biodegradable left-over of Hindu festivals, etc. It yet again becomes another clichéd banality of daily life — worshipped and ravaged at the same time.
At Uttarkashi, the other ‘Kashi’ for Hindu pilgrims for decades, on the sandy, sunshine river-front, the river moves slow and steady. Not far away in this district is the Silkyara Bend-Barkot tunnel, where 41 workers were trapped since the last two weeks, in the dingy and cold darkness underground. The tunnel is part of the ‘grand project’ of the current regime called the 889 km Char Dham National Highway Project, which has destroyed hundreds of hectares of forests and flora and fauna, culled thousands of trees, created brutal, volatile disturbances in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, and has been criticized universally by ecologists and scientists.
ALSO READ: ‘Our Environmental Sins In Uttarakhand’
Food reached them finally, they were able to make contact with their loved ones, experts and skilled workers were trying their best, horizontal and vertical drilling was on, ‘rat-miners’ staked their own lives and moved inside the debris, ambulances were on the ready, and psychologists were at hand to counsel during this traumatic phase. Earlier, the media and those glued onto their TV sets seemed to have completely ignored the workers because of the cricket world cup’s patriotic frenzy; however, after that, they were on the front pages, thank God!
Predictably, gradually, reluctantly, sane and scientific voices are coming out, speaking about the bitter truth which the workers in the trapped tunnel have triggered. Earlier, it was a sinking Joshimath, ravaged by commercial and religious tourism, which became the tip of what seemed like a collapsing iceberg. There were warnings in 2013 that the tunnels of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydropower Project of the NTPC could cause irreversible damage to this town where urban planning seems to have gone for a toss.
Environmentalist Suresh Nautiyal (Lok Story, Lokmarg, January 13, 2023) had said after the Joshimath fiasco: “Governments have cared two hoots for the vulnerable ecology of the hill state and willfully aligned with corporations, contractors, industrial companies and the construction mafia to irretrievably damage the inherent balance of nature. Roads, big dams which displaced thousands, real estate and mindless constructions violating all norms, unknown tunnels and aggressive religious tourism has all turned the clock to its current, tragic fate…The murder of natural streams and rivers, the massacre of trees, the non-stop destruction of the organic eco-system in the relentless race for a capitalist model of unplanned development, blindly copying big cities in the plains, has ravaged the pristine ‘Dev Bhoomi’.”
Combine this with the gigantic Tehri dam, with its failed promises, and many other dams which have choked the rivers, and submerged fertile valleys and habitats, this is a recipe made for disaster. Seismologists have earlier warned that a major earthquake around the Uttarkashi-Chamoli faultline might spell disaster for the big dam, and, consequently, for the towns of Rishikesh and Haridwar, within minutes. However, the establishment, across all governments, cared a damn.
The Char Dham project, connecting to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, as another gimmick to boost religious tourism, has led to serious criticism, but the BJP regime is not listening. According to The Telegraph (November 27, 2023), “We have erred in allowing the haphazard expansion of townships by housing and road-building on unsuitable sites, ignoring the essentials of geological conditions,” geologists Naresh Pant and HS Saini said in Current Science, a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. “We have also failed to enforce the standards of civil construction vis-à-vis land capability and hazards,” they said in their review, written months before the November 12 collapse of a 57m stretch of the tunnel along the Char Dham project. “The market forces of excessive tourism (have) prevailed over safety norms.”
The newspaper reported: “A high-powered committee (HPC) set up by the Union environment ministry under the Supreme Court’s directions to find ways to minimise its environmental and other consequences had found that the project had ‘damaged the Himalayan ecosystem due to unscientific and unplanned execution’. The HPC, in a report submitted in July 2020, had also warned that the project had cut hills without prior slope vulnerability analysis and without adequate slope protection measures, increasing the risk of landslides. A landslide susceptibility study by scientists from IIT, Roorkee and the University of Potsdam, Germany, along the 250km highway from Rishikesh to Joshimath near Badrinath during September and October 2022, had noted 309 landslides along a 247km segment, or one landslide every kilometre.”
As of now, the trapped workers in the tunnel seem strong, stoic and resilient. The smiles on their faces have gladdened the entire nation. One only hopes that the political establishment rethinks this massive, multi-crore road and highway project, in a seriously fragile and vulnerable Himalayan terrain, and stops all construction – and destruction – immediately. So that, no human being is ever trapped in these hell-holes.
For more details visit us: https://lokmarg.com/