Three persons being trapped when the tunnel they were digging in Bilaspur district, in Himachal Pradesh, collapsed 10 days ago, is a serious engineering lapse. Two persons could be rescued while the search for the third has been halted due to cracks developing in the tunnel. While the district administration and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) should be commended for leaving no stone unturned in carrying on rescue work and feeding those trapped by means of a duct, the broad question is why the accident took place at all. Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has himself said the soil below which the tunnel was being dug was loose. In that case, Himalayan Construction Company, which is doing construction work, should be called upon to explain why it did not take adequate precaution.
Questions of safety have always come up in tandem with construction work anywhere in the country. The coalmine disaster at Chasnala, in then Bihar, in 1975, is still fresh in the public mind. More recently, in 2001, there was another mine disaster in Bagdiggi, in Jharkhand. Besides, there have been dam disasters, building collapses, etc. Why do they happen? The answer, in some cases, is ‘human error’. And when there is no human error coming to light, the mishap is often attributed to physical factors. An easy way to prevent such disasters is to look at the way such projects have been carried out successfully in other places.
The NDRF is there to act when natural calamities such as floods, cyclones or earthquakes happen or are about to happen (this does not hold good in the case of earthquakes). But how much can be dug below the earth so that the roof does not cave in should not be difficult for a geophysicist and structural engineer to ascertain. Work on all tunnels in Bilaspur will stop for now. But one question can be asked: Could not all the things that are being done now have been done earlier? An avoidable tragedy such as this one could apply the brakes to road-building activities.