After Machines Fail, 'Rat Miners' to Help Rescue 41 Men Stuck in Indian Tunnel

November 27, 2023, 08.43 PM | Source: Reuters
After Machines Fail, 'Rat Miners' to Help Rescue 41 Men Stuck in Indian Tunnel

ILUSTRASI. Heavy machinery sits outside the tunnel during rescue operations where construction workers got trapped in the tunnel's collapse in Uttarkashi, northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 27, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

INDIA - SILKYARA, India, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Rescuers on Monday brought in "rat miners" to drill through a narrow pipe and help pull out 41 construction workers trapped in a tunnel in the Indian Himalayas for more than two weeks after high-powered machines failed, officials said.

The men, low-wage workers from India's poorest states, have been stuck in the 4.5km (3 miles) tunnel in Uttarakhand state since it collapsed on Nov. 12.

The men have been getting food, water, light, oxygen, and medicines through a pipe but efforts to dig a tunnel have run into a series of snags with machines.

Attempts to drill a tunnel horizontally through the debris trapping the men have been plagued by damage to machinery and rescuers will resort to drilling by hand, after clearing away the broken equipment inside the narrow evacuation pipe.

The drilling from inside the pipe, which is 900 millimeters (3 feet) wide, will be done by a team of six "rat miners" from central India, who officials described as "skilled workers".

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"Rat mining" is a primitive, hazardous, and controversial method used in India mostly to remove coal deposits through narrow passages. The name comes from its resemblance to rats burrowing through narrow holes.

"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," Rakesh Rajput, one of the miners, told Reuters.

"We have been doing it for more than 10 years and there's enough space for us. The 41 men are also laborers and we all want to bring them out," he said.

"SURE-SHOT WAY"

Government and private agencies involved in the rescue have been pursuing other options. On Sunday, they opened another route to the men, aiming to drill a shaft straight down from the top of the mountain above.

By Monday afternoon, they had drilled 31 meters (102 ft) of the 86 meters (282 ft), officials said, adding that the focus remains on the horizontal route.

"Skilled laborers will do the manual drilling," said Harpal Singh, a former head of the state-run Border Roads Organisation. "This is a sure-shot way of making progress."

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Bad weather could complicate the rescue. Thunderstorms, hail, and lower temperatures with a minimum of 9 degrees Celsius (48.2 degrees Fahrenheit)are forecast in the mountains.

"They are trained in working in every situation so that's not a worry for us," said Mahmood Ahmad, managing director of the NHIDCL company, which is building the tunnel.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's principal secretary, or chief of staff, P.K. Mishra visited the site and spoke to the trapped men through a communication link. He told them "Everyone is making efforts to bring all of you out as early as possible".

The tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway, one of Modi's most ambitious projects, aimed at connecting four Hindu pilgrimage sites through 890km of roads.

Authorities have not said what caused the cave-in which trapped the men as they were nearing the end of their night shift but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes, and floods.

Editor: Syamsul Azhar
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