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Rat miner recalls meeting workers in Uttarakhand tunnel before evacuation began. What he said

Munna Qureshi, the first rat miner to reach the site of the trapped area in Uttarakhand’s Silkyara Tunnel, recalled the moments when he reached the workers who had been trapped for 17 days since November 12. The extensive rescue operation at the tunnel concluded successfully concluded on Tuesday, with all 41 trapped workers brought out.

Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami meets the workers who were trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel after the rescue operation, in Uttarkashi on Tuesday. (ANI)

“I removed the last rock. I could see them. Then I went to the other side. I couldn’t. They hugged us, lifted us, and thanked us for taking them out. We worked continuously in the last 24 hours. I can’t express my happiness. I have done it for my country,” he said.

“The respect they (trapped workers) have given us, I can’t forget in my whole life,” he added.

Another rat miner from Delhi, Feroz Qureshi who manually cleared the debris in the final phase, emerged from the tunnel and was unable to hold back his tears. “I hugged the trapped worker. And just cried,” he shared emotionally.

“The exact time of the breakthrough was 7.05 pm. Uttarakhand CM, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, and Civil Aviation Gen VK Singh are present there,” stated Harpal Singh, Project Head, Zoji-la Tunnel.

Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, along with Union minister of State General (Retd) VK Singh, met the rescued workers.

What do rat miners do?

Rat miners engage in ‘rat-hole mining’, a manual drilling technique where narrow pits are meticulously dug by skilled workers, often just wide enough for one person to manoeuver into. This practice is prevalent in Meghalaya, and the term ‘rat hole’ signifies these compact pits primarily used for coal extraction.

Following the excavation of these pits, miners descend into the holes using ropes and bamboo ladders. This method primarily targets coal extraction and is extremely dangerous. Its legality is questionable in many nations due to a surge in miner fatalities caused by asphyxiation, oxygen deprivation, and starvation.

The rat-mining approach has faced substantial censure owing to its hazardous work conditions, environmental harm, and numerous accidents resulting in injuries and deaths.

Moreover, the mining operations contribute to land degradation, deforestation, and water pollution, amplifying their adverse environmental impact.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned the practice in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015. According to a Livemint report, the NGT observed, “It is also informed that there are umpteen number of cases where by virtue of rat-hole mining, during the rainy season, water flooded into the mining areas resulting in death of many… individuals including employees/workers.”

How did rat-hole mining aid in rescuing the trapped workers?

Following multiple delays due to the breakdown of the auger machine from the US, the final phase of the rescue operation was carried out by ‘rat miners’ These skilled individuals successfully conducted the drilling process, clearing all debris to facilitate the installation of pipelines and the safe evacuation of the trapped workers from the collapsed tunnel.

Subsequent to the technical issues encountered with the auger machine during horizontal drilling, the rescue team resorted to vertical drilling and manual excavation using the rat-hole mining method. This approach commenced on Monday, involving twelve experts specialised in rat-hole mining who used handheld tools within confined spaces.

(With inputs from reporter Amit)

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