By Saurabh Sharma
LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) -Falling debris are hampering efforts to pull out 40 workers trapped inside a collapsed Himalayan highway tunnel for more than three days as rescuers prepared to deploy an advanced machine to cut through the rubble faster.
Loose rocks have been falling into a tunnel that rescuers are trying to create and this is the main challenge facing the operation at the moment, said a top official in Uttarakhand state, where the disaster occurred.
The men are trapped in an area of about 50 metres and are safe, officials said, with food, water and oxygen being supplied through a pipe since the collapse early on Sunday, and frequent contact is being made with them through walkie-talkies.
“The plan is to drill through the debris, put mild steel pipes in it and make a path for the labourers to move,” Ranjit Sinha, the top disaster management officer in Uttarakhand, told Reuters by phone.
“The only challenge is to remove the debris as it is very loose and it keeps coming back.”
India’s Himalayas are prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods. The tunnel collapse follows incidents of land subsidence that have been blamed on rapid construction in the mountains.
A high-powered auger drilling machine is being set up at the site to cut through the debris at 2.5 metres an hour as opposed to one metre by the previous machine that suffered a glitch, Sinha said.
An estimated 50 metres remains to be drilled through before the trapped workers are reached, said Anshu Manish Khalkho, an official of the state-run highway management company NHIDCL.
There were up to 60 men on the night shift in the 4.5-km (3-mile) tunnel when it caved in before dawn. Men near the end of the tunnel managed to get out in time but the 40 trapped men were working deeper inside.
The ANI news agency showed footage on Wednesday of about a dozen angry workers outside the tunnel calling for their colleagues to be rescued quickly.
The men were working on the Char Dham highway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, but the plan has faced criticism from environmental experts.
The project aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites in the mountains through 890 km (550 miles) of roads at a cost of $1.5 billion, but some work was halted in January after hundreds of houses were damaged by subsidence along the routes.
The federal government has said it employed environmentally friendly techniques in the design to make geologically unstable stretches safer.
Work on the tunnel began in 2018 and was initially meant to be finished by July 2022 but delays prior to Sunday’s collapse had already pushed the expected end-date back to next May, the government said in a statement.
(Reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, writing by Tanvi Mehta, Krishn Kaushik and Shivam Patel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones)