The rescue operation to save 41 workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand is making progress using the rat-hole mining technique. This method, which was banned in 2014, involves manual drilling in narrow tunnels using hand-held tools. Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd.), a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, stated that a breakthrough is expected soon as only a two-meter distance separates the rescue pipes from the trapped workers.
During a media briefing, Lt Gen Hasnain addressed concerns about the use of the outlawed rat-hole mining technique. He explained that while the method may be illegal, the skills and experience of rat-hole miners are being utilized in this special situation to rescue the trapped workers. Another official supported this point, highlighting that in construction sites, workers often face uncomfortable conditions and the use of various skills is necessary to ensure their safety.
The rat-hole mining technique came into play after heavy machines failed to provide any breakthrough. Yesterday, the manual drilling method began after a 25-tonne auger machine broke down in the final stage of the operation. The diggers have made significant progress and are now just meters away from reaching the trapped workers who have been confined for 17 days.
Rat-hole mining is a common mining method in Meghalaya, where the coal seam is thin, making other methods economically unviable. Workers enter the mines and use hand-held tools to dig, with the coal being dumped nearby and later transported via highways. Unfortunately, due to limited livelihood options in the state, many children also engage in this hazardous job, posing as adults to secure work in the mines.
The National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining in 2014 due to its unscientific nature and the numerous accidents that have occurred in the Northeastern state. These accidents have resulted in the deaths of rat-hole miners, with some incidents involving flooded mines. Environmental pollution is another concern associated with this mining method.
In the ongoing rescue operation, Lt General Hasnain assured that all safety measures have been taken and emphasized the importance of not making any premature announcements that could jeopardize the rescue efforts. The Indian Air Force has been called in, and their Chinook helicopter is stationed at the Chinyalisaur airstrip to airlift the workers once they are rescued from the tunnel. The operation is expected to take at least three hours, with each worker taking approximately five minutes to be brought out and the stretcher sent back for the next worker.
Safety and security are top priorities, and a 30-bed facility at the District Hospital and a 10-bed facility at the site are prepared to accommodate the rescued workers. In case of urgency, workers can be transported to Rishikesh in ambulances. However, the Chinook helicopter will not fly during the night, so if there are any delays, the workers will be brought out the following morning.