India Ignored Repeated Warnings Before Tunnel Trapped 41 Men

As the trapped workers came out of the under-construction road tunnel after 17 days, the happy end to a rescue effort that had riveted India set off celebrations across the country.

Gone for the moment were questions about why the 41 men had been put at risk of being entombed in the tunnel in the first place. Instead, television crews outdid one another in excitement and volume, showering praise on the officials involved in the rescue, who lined up on Tuesday with garlands for the workers. Cameras focused on local representatives of India’s governing party, who credited the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Modi makes it possible!” they chanted in Hindi.

While activists and environmentalists also watched with relief, the scenes carried another, very different meaning for them. They had long warned, in futile court cases and failed tribunal hearings, that the $1.5 billion road-widening project was dangerously destabilizing the already fragile Himalayan landscape. To them, the fact that the work had proceeded anyway, ultimately incurring a disastrous landslide, was another reminder of how Mr. Modi has removed almost every obstacle to getting his way.

“The focus is on rescue and not the reasons thereof,” said Mallika Bhanot, an environmental conservationist in Uttarakhand, the northern state that is the site of the tunnel. “They do not want to bring attention to it.”

The construction project, which is largely widening more than 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, of roads to connect four major stops of a Hindu pilgrimage route, brings together two pillars of the image Mr. Modi has built: as an ambitious infrastructure developer and a champion of Hindu interests.

The prime minister personally inaugurated the highway project in 2016. In front of tens of thousands of people, Mr. Modi said the improved highways would make travel between the pilgrimage sites so easy that “people will remember the work that has been through the project for the next 100 years.”

He dedicated it “to all those who had been killed in the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy,” when flash floods killed more than 6,000 people in the state — unintentionally pointing to an example of the increased risk of natural disasters in the Himalayas as the planet warms. More recently, in another vivid case, the town of Joshimath began rapidly sinking, with hundreds of buildings and homes developing cracks.

Mr. Modi is credited with increasing investment in India’s abysmal infrastructure, hoping it helps unlock the country’s vast economic potential. But in the case of the highway project, his government simply bulldozed through the concerns of activists and scientists, they say.

India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, reached for comment on Wednesday, asked for questions relating to the project to be sent in writing but did not immediately respond once they were submitted.

While scientists have warned of the impact of major construction on the fragile Himalayas, it remains unclear whether additional checks, or a less ambitious program, would have been able to prevent the landslide that trapped the workers in Uttarakhand.

In 2018, a citizens’ group appealed to India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, asking for the work to be stopped because no environmental impact assessment had been done. Widening of the road would be impossible without increasing the risk of disaster, the group argued, and the project would require removing tens of thousands of trees.

The tribunal ruled that it had little power to act. The government had chopped up the project into 53 pieces, each under the 100-kilometer requirement for mandatory environmental impact assessments.

When the group escalated its complaint to the country’s Supreme Court, the judges in 2019 ordered the government to convene an expert committee to assess the project and its impact on the Himalayan landscape, and to offer advice on how to proceed.

The committee, headed by the environmentalist Ravi Chopra, found that the project had already damaged the Himalayan ecosystem because of “unscientific and unplanned execution.”

Its assessments from trips to the site found that hillside cutting, without sufficient analysis beforehand, had been preferred over less harmful approaches. The panel found that more than half of the new slopes were disaster prone, and that dozens of slope failures had already taken place. The project had also not planned properly for waste disposal, even in landslide-prone areas, threatening the flow of natural streams.

A majority of the committee members, many of them government officials, approved of the government’s road-widening plan anyway. A minority, including Mr. Chopra, said that the government had breached its own latest guidelines limiting the width of roads in hilly areas to reduce ecological damage.

The court sided with the minority opinion and ruled in September 2020 that the road be built at the narrower width.

But for months, work continued unchanged. Mr. Chopra wrote letter after letter to the court, complaining that the government was not complying with its orders.

The government then amended the guidelines for road construction one more time, working in an exception: Regions of strategic interest were exempt. Then it went back to the court with a new argument focusing on national security.

The government said that the roads in question were important for ferrying military goods to the border with China, even though the army chief had said that the narrower width was not an issue for the military, and that the advantage gained for defense readiness from wider roads could be lost to an increased risk of landslides.

In December 2021, the court — part of a judiciary seen as the last hurdle in Mr. Modi’s consolidation of power — changed its order, allowing the government to continue with the wider road.

Mr. Chopra resigned a couple months of later.

“During the period of that one year, the government was simply not willing to listen,” he said. “They were in a rush to complete the job, they were on a very tight deadline, they were taking shortcuts. So disasters were inevitable.”

In July 2022, an opposition leader in Parliament asked Nitin Gadkari, India’s roads minister, about the environmental concerns around the project. She asked for confirmation of whether the project, billed as one giant initiative, had in fact been divided into many segments, and whether that was to get around an environmental impact assessment.

Mr. Gadkari, in offering a written response that is a staple of the parliamentary system, confirmed that the project had been divided into 53 segments. His three-word answer to the next part, about whether that had been done to avoid the environmental assessment, was more telling.

“Does not arise.”

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