In the rugged terrain of northern India’s Uttarakhand state, a tale of resilience and daring unfolds as a group of manual excavators, often labeled as “rat-hole” miners, emerged as the saviors in a harrowing rescue mission.

The incident took place in the Silkyara tunnel, a critical component of the Char Dham project, connecting key Hindu pilgrimage sites. Tragedy struck when a landslide caused a section of the 4.5km tunnel to collapse on November 12, trapping 41 workers for over 16 agonizing days.

Munna Qureshi, a 29-year-old miner, stood at the forefront of the rescue operation, earning accolades as the “hero” of the mission.

Describing the moment they broke through the last rock to free the trapped workers, Qureshi expressed the overwhelming gratitude and relief felt by those rescued.

The rescue effort, which unfolded in the Himalayan tunnel, was not merely a feat of engineering but a testament to human courage and determination.

These manual excavators, often dubbed “rat-hole” miners due to their involvement in a hazardous technique banned by the Supreme Court in 2014, played a pivotal role.

In this unconventional method, narrow pits are excavated for coal extraction, a technique characterized by its dangers. The workers, predominantly slim boys and men, navigate these cramped spaces, carrying loads of wet coal on wooden slats.

Although officially prohibited, the “rat-hole” method persists illegally, particularly in the northeastern state of Meghalaya.

While the media and officials have labeled them as such, engineers in Uttarakhand prefer to refer to these rescuers as “manual excavators.”

Many of them have backgrounds in urban settings, specializing in fixing water and sewer pipes. This nuance challenges the perception of them solely as miners and underscores their versatility.

The rescue operation faced multiple challenges, requiring skilled tunnelling mechanics and manual excavators to intervene on multiple occasions.

A breakdown of the main auger drilling machine within the tunnel marked the first hurdle. The machine, with its rotating spiral blades, was crucial in creating an escape passage by cutting through the debris.

However, complications arose when the blades encountered steel reinforcements at 39m, leading to a temporary halt. A team of mechanics and manual excavators, armed with gas torches, skillfully navigated the cramped space to cut through the steel rebars.

The operation faced further setbacks as the auger blades entangled in steel debris at 48m, necessitating the manual intervention once again.

Entering the confined space with gas cutters, the rescuers severed entangled blades over three days, dealing with the constant threat of burn injuries.

Ultimately, the decision was made to manually excavate the last 12m stretch to ensure a smooth breakthrough. In a display of sheer determination, helmeted workers crawled into the sweltering pipe, pushing the rescue pipe and collecting debris like pushing a cup into the sand.

The entire manual excavation operation, marked by challenges and risks, was completed within 24 hours. Social media buzzed with admiration for the ingenious ‘jugaad’ – a term highlighting low-cost inventive solutions in India.

Despite their lack of formal training, these manual excavators, often among the poorest in India, showcased unparalleled bravery and resourcefulness.

Firoz Qureshi, one of the miners, encapsulated their spirit, stating, “It was a difficult task, but for us, nothing is difficult.” The story of the Silk Yara tunnel rescue stands as a tribute to the unsung heroes who navigate perilous conditions to save lives, embodying the indomitable spirit that defines the human will to overcome adversity.


Last Updated: 30 November 2023