A team of experts from the Centre was expected at the site of the collapsed Uttarkashi tunnel on Thursday to review how safe it was before the resumption of construction, but it did not arrive, Uttarakhand government officials said on Thursday.
“We were asked to be at the spot to receive them but the team didn’t arrive,” a state government official told reporters. He said there was no information when the team might come.
V.K. Singh, Union minister of state for road transport and highways, had on Tuesday said that a high-powered committee of experts would carry out a “security audit” of the project. He did not mention any date.
Some 57 metres of the under-construction Silkyara Bend-Barkot Road tunnel had collapsed on November 12 morning, trapping 41 labourers inside for more than 16 days before they were rescued on Tuesday evening.
Amid the lack of clarity over the central team’s arrival, officials of the private engineering firm that has the contract for the tunnel project sounded confident about resuming work soon.
“We will work with doubled enthusiasm on the construction of the tunnel,” a company official involved in the project was quoted as saying to reporters in Rishikesh.
“The Prime Minister and the chief minister have boosted our morale. We will complete the project before the 2024 parliamentary elections.”
The Congress and the CPIML have demanded the registration of a case against the company, alleging that violations of specifications had led to the tunnel collapse.
Prabha Naithani, an advocate, has filed a case with Uttarakhand High Court seeking immediate action against the company for allegedly putting the lives of the workers in danger.
However, Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Wednesday appeared in no mood to scrap the tunnel project, saying “development is also important here”, at a time several experts have flagged unplanned and reckless infrastructure development in the state’s fragile hills.
The tunnel is part of an ambitious central government project to provide all-weather connectivity to the four holy towns of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The company official was quoted as saying that all the specifications had been followed, and that the stretch that collapsed had been built four years ago and had been fine all this time. He did not offer any reason for the collapse.
He said Hume pipes are indeed laid beforehand on the floor of a tunnel to provide an escape passage in case of a collapse, but this is done only in stretches where cracks have appeared in the walls or roof. “But the stretch that collapsed had no cracks,” he was quoted as saying.
An engineer with the company was quoted by reporters in Rishikesh as saying: “Falling of debris means a load failure. The construction material (used in the walls and roof of the tunnel) couldn’t bear the weight of the mountain. We will use stronger materials now.”
The state government source said at least a half-dozen companies, including two central PSUs, had been involved in the survey of the part of the mountain through which the tunnel is being built, and in the formulation of the specifications for its construction.
Harpal Singh, head of the Zojila tunnel project in Jammu and Kashmir, who had joined the rescue operations in Silkyara, told reporters: “There are many reasons for such incidents. It may be because of a wrong geological survey, faulty ground support system and construction, wrong data analysis or human negligence.”
R.B. Kalia, medical superintendent of AIIMS Rishikesh where the 41 rescued labourers were admitted on Tuesday evening, said the discharge of 40 had been cleared. The remaining labourer will be given his discharge certificate after a few more tests.
“Forty of the labourers can be taken home. Officials of the states they belong to have been informed,” Kalia said.
“Some of them may be advised to consult the health centre near their home after two weeks as they may face some mental challenges in the coming days. One labourer will be discharged after some necessary examinations.”
The private company has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh for each of the rescued labourers and two months’ salary as bonus. Company officials said the 41 workers had also been allowed two months’ paid leave.
Asked by reporters whether he would return to the project, Manjit Kumar Chauhan, a rescued labourer who is from Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, said: “I am paid Rs 16,000 a month for working on the project and this sum is important to me. It’s not that I don’t fear death, but I have no option other than working there.”
The state government has given Rs 1 lakh to each of the rescued labourers.