New Delhi: As the rescue operation for the 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand entered its 17th day on Tuesday, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said that pipes had reached 52 metres through the debris. The target point is 57 metres, he added while speaking to the media in Silkyara. A team of 12 experts in rat-hole mining, a risky and illegal method of extracting coal, has been working on the last 10 or 12-metre stretch of the collapsed portion of the tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, since Monday.

They had to take over from a large auger machine that got stuck in the rubble on Friday at around 47 metres. “We have just crossed 50 metres,” said Chris Cooper, the leader of the L&T team, to PTI early on Tuesday. This raised the hopes of a quick breakthrough as the rescuers had only about 10 metres left to go.

However, the pace of the operation depends on whether the rescuers face any obstacles in the process of digging, which has often been delayed by various factors. Later, Dhami visited the site of the rescue operation and said, “Pipe has gone in up to 52 metres. Earlier it was at 51 metres. It was pushed one metre further in my presence. It will be pushed two metres more to 54 metres after which one more pipe will be laid.”

When asked about the challenges, he said that there were no steel and iron girders in the way. “Stones are coming in the way but they are being broken using cutters,” he said. A skilled team of workers is removing the muck by hand using the rat-hole mining technique while pipes with a diameter of 800 mm are being inserted by an auger machine through the rubble.

Praveen Yadav, who is involved in cutting and removing the obstacles from the debris, said that 51 metres had been drilled. A worker from the Trenchless company, which is pushing the pipes with the auger machine, said that if there were no hurdles, some good news could be expected by the evening.

Rat-hole mining is a controversial and dangerous practice in which small groups of miners go down narrow tunnels to mine small amounts of coal. Neeraj Khairwal, the nodal officer of the Uttarakhand government, clarified that the men brought to the site were not rat-hole miners but people who were experts in the technique.

They are likely to be divided into teams of two or three. Each team will go into the steel chute laid into the escape passage for short periods. Rajput Rai, a rat-hole drilling expert, said that one man will do the drilling, another will collect the rubble with his hands and the third will place it on a trolley to be pulled out.

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By David

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