In a race against time, rescue operations in the Indian Himalayas have taken an unconventional turn as “rat miners” are deployed to drill through a narrow pipe to free 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel for over two weeks. The incident occurred in the state of Uttarakhand on November 12, leaving the low-wage workers from India’s poorest states stranded in the 4.5km tunnel.
Efforts to dig a tunnel using high-powered machines faced setbacks, prompting the introduction of the “rat miners.” These skilled workers, specializing in a primitive and hazardous method resembling rats burrowing through narrow passages, are now leading the drilling efforts from inside the evacuation pipe.
The drilling process involves removing debris and pushing the 900-millimeter wide evacuation pipe further. Rakesh Rajput, one of the “rat miners,” explained their strategy: “Three of us will go inside the tunnel, one will do the drilling, the other will collect muck, and the third one will push the muck through the trolley.”
While the technique is considered hazardous, these experienced miners have been using it for over a decade. Their mission is to navigate the challenging conditions and rescue their fellow laborers.
As the rescue unfolds, government and private agencies have explored alternative options, including drilling a shaft straight down from the mountain’s top. However, the focus remains on the horizontal route.
Authorities are grappling with the unpredictability of the rescue timeline, and concerns are heightened by impending bad weather. Thunderstorms, hail, and lower temperatures are forecasted, posing additional challenges to the ongoing operations.
The trapped workers are part of a construction project for the $1.5 billion Char Dham highway, a significant infrastructure initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The tunnel collapse’s cause remains unknown, though the region is prone to natural disasters like landslides, earthquakes, and floods.
In the wake of the crisis, criticism has surfaced, with Hemant Soren, chief minister of Jharkhand, expressing concern over safety measures at such projects. He highlighted the recruitment of workers from economically disadvantaged states for risky projects, emphasizing the need for increased vigilance.
Federal officials maintain their commitment to the rescue mission, providing for the well-being of the trapped workers and ordering a safety audit of tunnels under construction by the national highways authority. The situation continues to unfold, and the nation watches with bated breath as efforts to bring the workers to safety intensify.
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