Wait prolongs

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Wait prolongs

Monday, 27 November 2023 | Pioneer

Wait prolongs

Those in charge are simply extending the timeline, but the lifeline of trapped workers may not keep pace

Workers trapped in the Uttarkashi tunnel will have to spend many more days physically cut off from the world. The main drilling machine was damaged beyond repair just a few metres from extracting them. Now rescue efforts are being made by digging a hole from the top and drilling vertically rather than horizontally. One is not a domain expert, but a simple question begs an answer: When the authorities were not quick enough to salvage the situation themselves or seek international expert help expeditiously, what prevented them from simultaneously exploring all the options they have since been trying one after the other? It is not a game of trial and error: Let us see, if this blow does not work, we will make the next one harder! There are 41 men deep under Earth's surface in unnatural conditions, sitting quietly, waiting patiently, doing nothing but hanging between hope and despair, life and death! The powers-that-be should have attempted to go in from all sides, with all their might, all guns blazing, altogether right from Day 1. Well, they might have, if they or their kin were trapped inside and their own lives depended on the potency and urgency of the rescue attempt. But that is not the case, so we are already in Day 15. Chief rescue in-charge Arnold Dix has said the workers could be rescued by Christmas, which stretches the timeline to at least three weeks. Meanwhile, water seepage and chillier weather are making life harsher for the workers in the mountainous region.

The incident brings the focus back not only on the emergency challenges but also on issues of workplace safety and enforcement of labour laws. The incident which could have been a tragedy, or can still turn into one any day, raises many poking questions. One, the decision to undertake projects using heavy machinery, especially drillers and dynamite, in ecologically sensitive terrains must be reconsidered. Two, should such an incident happen, what must be the response? A good number of days were lost in contemplating the plan of action and summoning international domain experts. This delay could have been fatal for the trapped workers; the delayed response from the Centre was a grave mistake. Workers on the site have reported that necessary escape routes and tunnels, crucial for handling emergencies in the construction of big underground projects, were not even planned. Three, a thorough investigation must be ordered and responsibility fixed with penal action and fiscal penalty. As it is, these workers who are mostly migrant labourers brought to an unfamiliar terrain, are paid poorly and their daily perks and long, hard working hours certainly do not arouse envy. Therefore, the workers and their families must be adequately compensated for the ordeal they went through for no fault of theirs. This incident should be made a case study in learning lessons for workers' safety. Unfortunately, however, our track record has been rather dismal – what we learn from such incidents is that we don’t learn anything from them!

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