Rescue teams will switch to digging by hand in an effort to extricate 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed road tunnel in northern India for the past 16 days.
Officials said Monday that workers will use a so-called “rat hole” mining technique to access the collapsed tunnel, digging a narrow passageway through the remaining rocks and debris to reach the men.
“There is no other way left except the manual method and this is also the safe one through which we can reach the laborers,” former Lt. Gen Harpal Singh, who is at the site to provide technical assistance to the operation, said on Monday. "Our people are also taking care of the safety measures of those who will go inside for manual drilling. Safety is our priority.”
The tunnel, being built as part of a massive highway project in the northern state of Uttarakhand, caved in on November 12.
Efforts to reach the workers have hit repeated setbacks in the difficult Himalayan terrain, with sophisticated drilling equipment breaking down several times as it encountered rocks and boulders.
The latest setback came on Friday when the drilling machine was damaged irreparably about 14 meters away from the tunnel.
A team of Indian army engineers joined the rescue effort Monday, assisting other teams who had been already working on the site. They include international tunnel experts.
Work is also in progress to create an alternate escape route with workers drilling vertically from the top of the mountain toward the tunnel.
"We have to drill around 86 meters to be done within four days, that is, by November 30th. Hopefully, there will be no further hurdles and the work will be completed on time," Mahmood Ahmad, managing director of the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited said on Sunday.
However drilling into the mountain poses higher risks, with geologists warning that it could destabilize the hilly terrain.
Plummeting temperatures and forecasts of hail, thunderstorms and rainy weather pose another challenge to the rescue teams.
“Everyone has been trying,” Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Pushkar Singh Dhami said on Monday. “We hope that the work is completed at the earliest."
Contact has been maintained with the 41 men since they were trapped, first via radio and then with a camera that was inserted last Tuesday through a 15 centimeter pipe that is being used to send hot meals and medicines to the trapped men. Oxygen is being supplied through a separate pipe.
Doctors and psychologists are on standby to ensure their physical and mental well-being of the mostly migrant workers, who had come to work on the project from some of India’s poorest states. Mobile phones have been sent in so that they can talk to their families as well as board games such as Ludo to help them stay occupied.
“They have electricity and a two kilometer passageway along which they can walk. This will help in ensuring their well-being. Counselors are constantly in touch with them. We are giving them what they need,” Syed Ata Hussain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority told a press conference Monday.
Authorities have not said what caused the partial collapse of the under-construction tunnel, which is part of an ambitious but controversial $ 1.5 billion highway project to improve access to important Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand. Reports say it happened due to a landslide.
Several experts had opposed the “Char Dham” highway project saying that cutting of hillsides and felling of trees would disturb the geology of the Himalayas, the world’s youngest mountain chain, as well as pose a risk to communities living in the vicinity.
“This is a region that has become increasingly prone to disasters such as landslides. So whatever we are building, we must take the fragility of the Himalayas into account,” Anjal Prakash, research director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, told VOA.
“There is a need for infrastructure but how do we plan, that is a conundrum. We need to ensure that the construction being done is environmentally benign and meets international standards for road safety. It looks to me as if some of these issues have been compromised in the present case.”