Tragedy at Tehri

Print edition : August 27, 2004

An accident in a tunnel under construction at the Tehri dam site claims the lives of about 30 workers.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI at the Tehri dam site

A view of the 2,400 MW Tehri hydel project with the vertical shaft in the foreground, where the landmass caved in.-PICTURES: SANDEEP SAXENA

THE votaries of the mammoth 2,400 MW Tehri hydroelectric project may have felt victorious when the Supreme Court removed all legal hurdles before the construction of the dam in September 2003. Town planners and administrators may have patted themselves on their backs for this victory because they expect the dam, once completed, to solve the power and water crises in most of northern India.

Tunnel 3, where the accident occurred.-

But if the tragedy that struck the Tehri dam, located in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttaranchal, at 10-35 p.m. on August 2 is any indication, environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna's reiteration that the dam "will spell disaster" could prove prophetic. The huge landmass that caved in and trapped and killed 29 workers (the number is bound to go up once the rescue operations are over) inside a tunnel at the dam site could just be the warning signal of the environmental dangers involved in the construction of the dam in what anti-dam activists regard as a highly seismic zone. As per preliminary details made available about the cause of the accident (the technical inquiry report will be ready only in September), the accident occurred because the topmost platform, called the slip form, which was being built in the vertical shaft to be connected with tunnel T3 caved in after a huge landmass and rocks fell on it from the adjoining loose area. More than 60 workers were engaged in the concreting work at the shaft. In a chain reaction, the slip form crashed on the second platform, called bulkhead, where over 20 workers were on duty, and then cascaded to the base of the shaft, where 30-40 persons were at work. In the process a huge mass of concrete and iron also crashed down, trapping and killing the workers who came under it. The tragedy struck so quickly that most of the workers could hardly react. Some of the workers managed to get out of the tunnel in time. The number of those who got trapped could be between 70 and 80. Eleven injured workers, five of them in a serious condition, were extricated from the debris. The majority of the workers were from Bihar, Jharkhand, Punjab and Orissa and earned between Rs.4,000 and Rs.5,000 a month.

According to officials from the JP Group of Industries, which is carrying out the construction work of the Tehri project, the landmass apparently came loose because of heavy rain in the region. The JP Group has announced Rs.10 lakhs for the families of those killed.

A view of the old Tehri town surrounded by the Bhagirathi river.-

The vertical shaft was meant for discharging extra water from the dam. The excess water would enter the shaft and then flow to the T3 tunnel before emptying into the river on the other side. It is learnt that this shaft was nearing completion.

The accident, many feel, could have been avoided if the work had been stopped during the rain. According to Dr. P.C. Navani, Director, Geological Survey of India, Dehra Dun, who worked at the Tehri dam site for 15 years from 1985, the accident happened because work was still continuing at the "unlined area" of the shaft during the rains. "Work in the rainy season in the unlined area should have been avoided at all costs," he told Frontline on phone from Dehra Dun. Navani, who had directed and guided the Terhi dam authorities in " understanding the specific problems at the site", said that while the concrete lining of the shaft was in progress a portion of it near the top was "unlined and a rock mass was exposed. It got dislodged because pore water pressure had increased because of the rain". Had this lining been done before the rain came or work was stopped during the rain, the disaster could have been averted, he said.

Rescue opertions in progress inside the tunnel.-

But work was in full swing to meet the September deadline for the completion of the T3 tunnel. Incidentally, had the deadline been met the two-century-old Tehri town would have moved yet another step closer to its watery grave. If filling of the dam goes as per plan, part of the old town would be submerged sometime in November. The first phase of the project, generating 500 MW of electricity, is slated to be completed by May-June next year.

Meanwhile, heavy downpour has swelled the Bhagirati whose swirling waters are submerging the town, while a number of dam-displaced persons continue to struggle for shelter. Some 500 families from the villages in the doob (submergence) area are still waiting to be rehabilitated, according to Punit Kansal, Tehri District Magistrate. He said the administration was trying to rehabilitate them near Haridwar. According to the District Magistrate 5,991 urban and 5,429 rural families are "eligible oustees" while hundreds of other displaced persons do not come under the government's rehabilitation scheme for some technical reason or the other.

The new Tehri town.-

This correspondent came across several families possessing original land or house documents (making them eligible oustees) and yet being denied any rehabilitation package. Bir Singh Rana, who owned a house in Old Tehri, has not been provided with one at the rehabilitation site. Sunil Singh Rana, along with his four brothers, is waiting for the allotment of a house and shops. His family had owned five shops, but he received compensation for only one shop. Although he was in possession of a house in Old Tehri since 1918, he received no compensation for it. Then there is Kriparam Dhondiyal, who lost his house and is making do with a one-room house in the Motibagh area with his family. Zahur Beg, whose electronics goods shop in the Old Tehri market has gone under water, claims electronic goods worth Rs.3 lakhs were destroyed as he had no alternative place to store them. He has also not been compensated. Then there is Naeem Ahmad, who had a quilt making shop, who is running from pillar to post for some compensation. There are more such stories. But the District Magistrate says nowhere in the world has rehabilitation been done to the entire satisfaction of all those affected.

In the case of the Tehri oustees, even if they get a "suitable package", their loss is never compensated. In the words of Sunderlal Bahuguna, "our history, geography, culture, everything is going under water. Memories associated with our childhood, with the freedom struggle, with our youth, everything is drowning." His wife Vimla Bahuguna, sitting beside him, agrees, "It is painful to see the memories from the past getting lost under water for ever."

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