Beyond Cheers: Urgent Calls for Policy Review in Aftermath of Silkyara Tunnel Rescue

Immediate attention needed on sustainable development and environmental protection in Uttarakhand

The safe return of the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel near Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, is a matter of great satisfaction for the entire nation. Kudos to all those involved in the rescue operation for the last 17 days. The tale must have been horrifying but the way we saw the smiling workers coming out, reflected their energy level despite all odds. Yes, in one sentence, these are the sons of the soil, who toil hard to make our lives better.

There are three issues involved here. One, which has been projected by the government is the rescue effort to save the lives of the people and we must give full credit to those who were involved in it. All the agencies of the government did this herculean task with a great sense of duty. The result is the government has been able to send a signal to the families of the workers trapped that it cares for their lives and would go to any extent to protect their lives. Perhaps, the government has succeeded in communicating this message. Every government or party does that and the government would take all the credit for the successful operation. So Congratulations to all those who were involved in it.

The second part is the company engaged in the operation which remained out of sight and out of scrutiny till now. Who gave them the contract and whose company is this? Whether it flouted the norms of tunnelling in the region where a safe passage must have been prepared in advance. Will the accountability be fixed for this company?

And the third is the most important part and it is the policy level decision. How long will you rob the #Himalayas? Will the government and its advisers ever think to maintain the sanctity of the Himalayas and that they can not really claim victory over nature? Please don’t try to tame the Himalayas. If you feel your big machines and experts can tame the Himalayas then you are grossly mistaken. At the end of the day, it was the rat miners who took us to ultimate ‘victory’. It seems that the government has still not learnt its lessons from various disasters that have been occurring in the Himalayas. This year, Uttarakhand saw terrific rains, landslides, cloudbursts and floods but in the din of an unprecedented crisis that happened due to Himachal rains, it was lost. The fact is that even in Himachal, the massive devastation that has happened was not purely ‘natural’ but purely the outcome of the concretisation process and building of various hydropower projects which we are unable to manage properly. ‘Experts’ with greed feel that states like Uttarakhand are not able to use their maximum potential of the Hydro Power projects and are advising the government to go for bigger projects. The Char Dham High Way is not yet completed and most of the time the roads are getting ‘thrashed’ by the mountains. We all need good roads but we have to understand the fragility of the Himalayan regions. Anyone familiar with the Uttarkashi region will vouch for how sensitive it is. Nobody denies making our roads comfortable but it also needs to be seen how much comfort we want to give to ‘people’. Don’t make the region flooded by religious tourists which will ultimately bring destruction. A small place like Kedarnath, where five thousand people at one time is an extremely high number, is hosting lakhs of people. Will it not damage the sacred areas? How are you going to meet the daily needs of the people? Where is the ‘sewage’ system?

silkyara tunnel rescue uttarakhand uttarkashi himalayas
National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel along with other rescue operatives gather near the face of the collapsed under construction Silkyara tunnel in the Uttarkashi district of India’s Uttarakhand state, on November 28, 2023 | Courtesy: AJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

It looks like we don’t care about what is happening to local people. After the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, developmental projects have increased and so have the disasters. The 2021 disaster at the Raini-Tapovan area particularly on the Rishiganga-Dhauliganga confluence showed the might of nature again when the entire hydropower project got swept away, apart from the lives of several hundred workers mostly outside Uttarakhand. Joshimath and many other towns in Uttarakhand are endangered. So far, not much has been done. After a few months, we forget things.

We request policy planners to think seriously about all the projects in the Himalayas. Maintain the dignity, sanctity and serenity of the Himalayas and its sacred rivers worshipped by all. Don’t destroy our heritage, for the Uttarakhand region, they are our identity.

The incidents also reveal that the projects in Uttarakhand are so far not giving any employment to local people. Whether in Tapovan or Silkyara tunnel, most of the workers and labourers working are outside the state which reflects how the companies do not trust local people and bring the outsiders to get their things done.

The servile media convert every tragedy into an event and focus on these events so that people don’t discuss the real issue of safety and protection of the Himalayas. As the rescue operation has succeeded and thanks to all those who worked day and night to do this task, it is time, for the government to seriously ponder over and order an audit of all the projects in the Himalayan region.

I am still remembering the warning by legendary Girda about this ‘development. He was a visionary. He still reminds us about the Himalayas and development. Says, Girda,

एक तरफ बर्बाद बस्तियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।

एक तरफ डूबती कश्तियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।

एक तरफ हैं सूखी नदियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।

एक तरफ है प्यासी दुनियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।

अजी वाह! क्या बात तुम्हारी,

तुम तो पानी के व्योपारी,

खेल तुम्हारा, तुम्हीं खिलाड़ी,

बिछी हुई ये बिसात तुम्हारी,

सारा पानी चूस रहे हो,

नदी-समन्दर लूट रहे हो,

गंगा-यमुना की छाती पर

कंकड़-पत्थर कूट रहे हो,

उफ!! तुम्हारी ये खुदगर्जी,

चलेगी कब तक ये मनमर्जी,

जिस दिन डोलगी ये धरती,

सर से निकलेगी सब मस्ती,

महल-चौबारे बह जायेंगे

खाली रौखड़ रह जायेंगे

बूँद-बूँद को तरसोगे जब –

बोल व्योपारी – तब क्या होगा?

नगद – उधारी – तब क्या होगा??

आज भले ही मौज उड़ा लो,

नदियों को प्यासा तड़पा लो,

गंगा को कीचड़ कर डालो,

लेकिन डोलेगी जब धरती – बोल व्योपारी – तब क्या होगा?

वर्ल्ड बैंक के टोकनधारी – तब क्या होगा ?

योजनकारी – तब क्या होगा ?

नगद-उधारी तब क्या होगा ?

एक तरफ हैं सूखी नदियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।

एक तरफ है प्यासी दुनियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।


These wise words of Girda, the Jankavi of Uttarakhand are still valid for all. Will we ever learn our lesson? The Himalayas need our attention. They enchant us and give us enormous joy, standing for us as our borders. It is time, we bow to its might and respect it and enjoy its beautiful localities for which a bit of inconvenience should be acceptable to all. You can’t have all your home luxuries travelling to the abode of nature. Let me say, that there can be no luxury than enjoying the beauty of the Himalayas and its supremely pristine rivers and rivlets. Let us all protect and respect them.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The author is an activist and is currently working on Impact of Ganga and its tributaries in the Himalayas and the plains of India

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