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Uttarakhand tunnel rescue: Heroes who helped end 17-day ordeal

By, Uttarkashi
Nov 30, 2023 08:22 AM IST

Finally, the rat miners were parachuted in on the evening of November 27 as a last-resort to clear out the last 12m of rubble.

In the end, it was the most unheralded lot who stood tallest. As clouds of unease and uncertainty swarmed over the mountains of Silkyara, as glitch after glitch delayed freedom for 41 workers trapped in an under-construction tunnel for 17 days, an unsung group of miners took charge.

Feroze Qureshi, one of the 12-member team of 'rat-hole' miners from Rockwell Enterprises who successfully rescued the 41 trapped workers from the under-construction Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel, in Uttarkashi district on Wednesday. (PTI)
Feroze Qureshi, one of the 12-member team of 'rat-hole' miners from Rockwell Enterprises who successfully rescued the 41 trapped workers from the under-construction Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel, in Uttarkashi district on Wednesday. (PTI)

Twelve men, armed only with shovels, spades, hammers and drills, spent 24 hours holed into a narrow pipe, ploughing through a wall of debris in a desperate attempt to get to those trapped men. At the end of the 24 hours, these 12 men got the job done without a fuss — the labourers emerged, shaken and scarred, but safe.

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Where modern machinery turned into stoppable forces in the face of a seemingly immovable object, this group was clinical.

They’re known as “rat-hole miners” or “rat miners” — a term equating the work they do with rodents’ movements. And their heroic rescue has cast the spotlight on an occupation that’s outlawed across India, but is still prevalent in some mines and construction sites.

“It was a difficult task. But nothing is difficult for us,” said a beaming Feroze Qureshi, one of the rat miners who not only rescued the trapped workers, but doused a nation’s collective anxiety.

Rat-hole mining refers to the practice of burrowing through mines manually using hand-held tools, a practice that is effective at navigating packed spaces but is illegal, given that it severely risks the lives of workers’, who wear no protective gear and are paid little.

The practice is still largely prevalent in Meghalaya, though most rat miners only find work cleaning sewage lines in megapolises.

In Uttarkashi, as a host of rescue techniques collapsed, when global tunnelling experts armed with excavators, auger machines and boring machines failed, it fell upon these 12 men, who clean sewers in Delhi and Ahmedabad, to extricate their compatriots. “When we saw the trapped workers inside the tunnel after the breakthrough, we hugged them like they were family,” said Nasir Hussain, one of the 12 miners.

An auger machine built in the US drilled through 46.8mm of the 57m-thick wall of debris over a week before its blades snapped in the face of stern rock on November 24.

Finally, the rat miners were parachuted in on the evening of November 27 as a last-resort to clear out the last 12m of rubble.

Wakeel Hassan, Monu Kumar, Feroze Qureshi, Nasir Khan, Munna Qureshi, Irshad Ansari, Rashid Ansari, Naseem Malik, Devender Kumar, Ankur, Jatin and Saurabh worked in shifts of three to cut through the rock.

One person would drill through the rock, the second collected the debris and the third pushed it out of the pipe through a wheeled trolley.

They worked for nearly 24 hours without a break.

“Where machines can’t go, our hands can. Our work involves laying underground sewer and water pipelines where machines can’t be used — like railway lines, road crossings, and narrow lanes. We use hand-held tools like hoes to dig through and trolleys to dispose of the rubble,” said Feroze.

Feroze’s brother and fellow miner Munna said they had told the officials heading the rescue operations that they would remove the debris in 24 hours. “Our team made a commitment, and we stuck by what we said.”

But, Feroze said, their work is ridiculed and humiliated.

“We are treated terribly because of the work we do,” said Feroze, who now lives in Kasganj district in western Uttar Pradesh.

“Society doesn’t give our work much respect. Even our superiors don’t treat us with respect.”

Indeed, over the years, rat mining has claimed many lives. Most recently, at least 15 rat miners were killed in a mine in Meghalaya after being trapped for more than a month between December 2018 and January 2019.

The Uttarkashi rescue will most certainly be a turning point in their lives, one way or another.

Monu Kumar, for instance, said he found succour where he never had before.

“My father called me and said he was proud of me. This is the first time he has appreciated the work I do.” Munna agreed. “We are being treated like heroes,” he said.

“Hopefully, it brings a change in our society and our work should not be looked down upon,” he said.

Complimenting them, National Disaster Management Authority member Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Husnain said the rat-miners did a phenomenal job by digging about 12 meters in less than 24 hours.

“Rat-hole mining may be illegal but their talent and experience has helped us to rescue the workers,” he said.

And in the end, the 41 survivors walked out into the light standing on the shoulders of giants.

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