Playing With Peaks

With the death of 10 workers under a massive landslide in Ramban, while working on a road project, the focus is back to the fragile geography of the region, a ground reality the policymakers and construction companies have been ignored from day one, writes Masood Hussain

A tunnel along Baramulla – Jammu railway line. KL image by Bilal Bahadur

A Ministry of Road Transport and Highways appointed a 3-member expert committee led by IIT Delhi’s Prof JT Shahu (with a chief engineer from the office of the DG BRO and Vinod Shukla, MD of FGS Consultants, who is also a member of MoRTH’s expert committee on tunnels, as members) is looking into the issues of the Khooni Nalla tunnel collapse. Regardless of the probe outcome, the fact is that 10 precious lives were lost and even if the company and the project owner compensate for the losses the families will never be the same again.

On May 19, 2022 night, a portion of the just-started adit tunnel between Digdole and Khooni Nallah on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway caved in, impacting 13 workers working on the site. Almost all the machines were devastated by the mountain collapse. Three workers were rescued and 10 were retrieved dead in the subsequent four days.

Of the ten slain, five were from West Bengal, one from Assam, and two each from Nepal and Jammu and Kashmir’s Ramban district.  Hundreds of people joined the funeral prayers of Muzaffar Sheikh, 38, and Mohammad Ishrat, 30, when they were laid to rest at Panthiyal village.

Quickly, the EPC contractor and the district administration announced the compensation for the families of the slain. Some relief was also extended to the people who survived the tragedy. That, however, did not end the story.

Kashmir Rail

The tunnelling project (T4) is part of the new Jammu Srinagar national highway that is by and large complete between Srinagar and Banihal and Jammu and Ramban. However, the crisis remains in the most challenging part of the highway – between Banihal and Ramban – a stretch of around 36 km. Its challenging geology was the key factor why not many contractors were willing to get into this area.

Some of the most festering spots of the otherwise blood-drenched highway including Marog, Panthial, Digdol, and Battery Chashma are located on this stretch. The spot where the work on the adit tunnel started in early February 2022 is a place that is part of Kashmir folklore – Khooni Nalla, a bloody rivulet. This vast stretch between Digdole and Khooni Nallah is home to a shooting stone area for which the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) attempted a series of treatments including a steel mesh. Nothing much helped. Now the new highway has planned a 4-lane-tunnel between Digdole to Panthyal for which the adit tunnel was being laid. “They had barely completed three meters that the tragedy befell,” one senior civil administration officer said. The contract for the tunnel has been awarded to JV between Ceigall India Limited and Patel Engineering Limited.

“There are instances when a moving vehicle was literally devoured by a landslide and quite a few could survive,” recalls a resident, attributing part of the frequent tragedies to the spot being haunted. “By an average, an accident takes place every month.”

Initially, the planners thought the road will follow the old alignment and will undergo expansion in width. Subsequently, however, it was decided that the road must bypass most of the festering spots and eventually a new realignment for around 13.6 km was decided. The new alignment will include five tunnels, 33 culverts, 13 viaducts, 11 minor bridges, and three underpasses and overall redoing of the stretch would cost no less than Rs 2169 crore.

“Almost 66 per cent of this stretch is four-laned,” one report, privy of the developments said. “It includes almost 2700 meters of tunnelling. But after doing all this, the NHAI decided to implement two tunnel projects which will bypass the seriously ailing spots.” The journalist said that the people had pleaded from day one that the project will not be viable unless the major tunnels are done. “They implemented the road and now will be having tunnel and flyovers.”

As workers started working on an adit tunnel near Khooni Nalla in Ramban. a hillock collapsed killing 10 labourers, two of them from Ramban on May 20, 2022.

Fragile Ecology

While improving the sick highway has no alternative, the planners, however, have been ignoring the geological realities of the region they work in. Mostly denuded, the area has the youngest mountains of the region, which are prone to soil erosions and landslides. During winters avalanches are quite frequent.

Working with these mountains would require extra expertise and a lot of spadework before actually moving the shovels in the foothills. People who have been managing this highway for the last seven decades have lived the challenges of keeping it open for most of the year. There is not a single chain on this highway that has not seen the human blood, somewhere a worker was killed and somewhere a manager but in most of the cases, the commuters topped the list. There have been scores of instances in which a single shooting stone hit an individual passenger near the window, and killed him as the bus moved unscathed otherwise. This is one factor why the people living around Khooni Nall believe the spirit of the wife of an MP (military policeman) is seen during nights with her kid seeking a lift!

How fragile, the ecology of the place can be demonstrated by what happened while implementing the prestigious railway project. People who drafted the rail alignment from their ivory towers cost the public kitty a whopping amount after the geological realities forced planners to make last time amends.

Jammu Srinagar highway is blocked due to massive landslides near Ramban.

 Lost Tunnels

The 23-km track between Udhampur and Katra, the base station for the cave shrine of Vaishno Devi, was formally thrown open in early 2014, almost seven years after it was completed for the first time. The reason was that the geological realities showed up at a time when the project owners were planning a test drive.

The track passed through some of the youngest belts of the Shivalik range and envisages 11 km of tunnels, nine major and 29 minor bridges, besides 10 rail over / rail bridges. The tallest bridge on the track is 85 meters high and the longest tunnel is 3.15 km long.

An aerial view of the Ramban located between the Jammu Srinagar highway and the Chenab river.

One fine day in December 2002, when the officials went visiting the track, they saw the 3.22-km Tunnel-1, literally devastated. NRCO spent Rs 95.13 crore on the construction of the tunnel and attempted repairs to the deformed tunnel but it collapsed completely in November 2006 and blocked the passage. A new tunnel on a new alignment of 1800 meters was constructed for Rs 91.74 crore and was completed later in 2013, excluding the costs of cement and steel.

The 2.48-km T-3 was built at a cost of Rs 55 crore and was already in a bad shape. Completed in April 2008, it was having massive waterlogging issues since July 2003. NRCO commissioned a number of consultants and finally managed to revive it. A CAG investigation later found that the geological realities, even though pointed out by the surveyors had not been taken care of. These two tunnel projects delayed the arrival of rail to Katra by a decade. The erstwhile Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, once publicly said that when he visited the tunnel he saw a river flowing under it!

Overall Challenges

Planners had a “paper” alignment and went ahead to implement it. During implementation, the lack of extensive studies offered challenges thus forcing a relook on the alignment. By then part of the work had been implemented. The new alignment, mostly impacting the Katra-Qazigund stretch, reduced the length of the original proposal by 21 km; improved the stability and security of the track as the number of tunnels and bridges came down.

But adopting the new alignment had its own costs. As many as 15 tunnel projects and eight bridges, which had seen some work at an investment of Rs 226.39 crore were abandoned.

The trickiest section of the track continues to be between Katra and Banihal, which is still under implementation. In the 71-km track between Katra and Dharam, even though the new alignment reduced the number of tunnels from 31 to 17 and that of bridges from 51 to go, the geological realities continued throwing surprises.

Tunnel-1 in this section saw a 19.75-meter long false tunnel partly twisted and partly collapsing in February 2005, besides damaging 75 meters of the main tunnel. In July 2007, a 5-meter stretch of the tunnel collapsed and later

378 meters of the tunnel from the Katra end was deformed requiring a fresh investment of Rs 14.08 crore for repairs. This was in addition to the heavy ingress of water in the tunnel that led the contractor to submit a bill of Rs 10 crore for dewatering the tunnel.

The T-2 remained inundated in massive water discharge till the tunnelling methods were changed after many years but the pace of tunnelling fell from 1976 meters in 13 months to only 21.75 meters. One of its portals was demolished twice in March and May 2007 and was eventually abandoned. Tunnel T-3 remained literally inundated throughout. There was no tunnel in this stretch that had a normal, incident-free construction. In September 2006, a major landslide hit T-42 annihilating 23 shops and 25 houses forcing the planners to change the alignment completely as they were constructing the tunnel slope debris without any geological study. Some of them were abandoned and new tunnels were laid. A lot of them had new entrances as the initial ones collapsed, the same way as happened on the highway at Ramban.

The situation was not very different between Dharam and Banihal. As the landmass offered surprises, various bridges and tunnels were abandoned paving the way for newer ones.

Auditing the prestigious project in 2013, CAG said that there was a net loss of Rs 3259 crore apparently as the outcome of a bad design alignment, which included Rs 281.42 crore of abandoned assets; Rs 57.24 crore for suspension of work when the authorities started working for an alternative and particle alignment; Rs 1122.63 crore of loss in foreclosure of works and re-tendering the same at higher costs and spending Rs 194.37 crore for repairing the executed works.

Dam Looks Like A Little Ocean

Regardless of everything, the track is coming up fast. The major tunnel of almost 13 km is about to be ready, and so is the major bridge over Chenab in Reasi.

Ground Realities

The ground realities of the region, however, remain unchanged. The region falls in the seismic zone IV. In fact, a major fault line passes through the Baglihar dam. The young mountains are weak and prone to erosion.

The planners and the implementing agencies should take lessons from the twin projects – the old highway and the railway, before picking the shovel in the foothills of the region. Even if they succeed in implementing the surface communication projects, the region is so unstable that it can throw up surprises at any time. It is better to hire local geographers and earth scientists both in planning and execution and avoid discovering the wheel every time a project of better accessibility is announced.

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