Analysis: Crucial Questions About Navayuga And The EBs

Analysis: Crucial Questions About Navayuga And The EBs

Rashme SehgalUpdated: Wednesday, March 27, 2024, 11:05 PM IST
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The Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd found itself in the eye of a storm when the Silkyara tunnel, part of the prestigious Char Dham Pariyojana, collapsed in Uttarakhand last Diwali trapping 41 labourers for 17 days.

The central government launched a massive rescue mission in which every arm of the state was involved to ensure the labourers were brought out alive. The mission proved a success no doubt because of the intervention of over 20 wings of the government and private organisations. The finale to this was the arrival of the rat-hole miners who used an axe and shovel to dig out the final caved portion of the tunnel and bring the workers out alive.

Navayuga now finds itself battling another storm as they have been found to have bought electoral bonds worth Rs 55 crore between 2019 and 2022.

Navayuga, which is headquartered in Hyderabad, was raided on October 26, 2018 by a 20-member strong team of income tax officials. IT officials accused the company bosses of money laundering and of violating income tax rules.

Six months later the company went ahead and bought 30 individual electoral bonds of Rs 10 crore denomination on April 18, 2019. These bonds were bought a few weeks before the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2019, with another Rs 15 crore being bought later in the same year followed by a purchase of another Rs 10 crore worth of bonds in 2022.

By an amazing coincidence, following the raids, the company was given the responsibility of building one of India’s longest tunnels, the 4,531 km long Silkyara-Barkot two-lane tunnel. The following year the Navayuga company was granted the responsibility of building another major tunnel which was part of the prestigious Rishikesh-Karnaprayag rail link project.

This is not to say that this company has not been involved in the construction of several key projects in the past, having built stellar projects in J&K and in the Northeast. Some of these include the construction of the treacherous Qazigund-Banihal highway project to ensure all-weather connectivity through the Pir Panjal pass. The company also built the Chola-Sadia bridge over the Brahmaputra in Assam that was inaugurated in 2017.

But not all their projects have met with success. Just prior to the Silkyara tunnel cave-in, 20 workers and engineers died when a major accident took place on the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Expressway in Maharashtra. Despite Navayuga being the primary contractor for this project, the FIR was lodged against a sub-contractor hired to construct part of the project.

Surprisingly, no FIR has been lodged for the disastrous cave-in of the Silkyara tunnel. An RTI reply from the primary body overseeing the construction of the Char Dham project, the National Highways and Infrastructural Development Corporation Ltd, has emphasised that no FIR has been lodged so far. Nor is there any clarity on which entity is going to pay for the rescue operation of the 41 trapped workers whose cost alone would be running in crores.

An investigative committee set up by NHIDCL to look into the causes of the collapse has submitted its report to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways but this has not been placed in the public domain. Following the report, a few tentative steps were taken to resume work but heavy rain in end February and early March this year saw far too much water entering the tunnel, forcing the work to be abandoned yet again.

Political analysts are asking if there is any likelihood of a link between the purchase of bonds, allocation of contracts and the unwillingness shown by the nodal Ministry of Road Transport to file an FIR against Navayuga.

This question was put to the Project Director of NHIDCL Colonel Deepak Patil who had told reporters some weeks ago that the government had no plans to terminate the contract with Navayuga and start afresh with a new contractor.

A safety audit report should necessarily have been put in the public domain. Geologists believe that the collapse indicated that no Standard Operating Procedures had been followed during the process of tunnel construction. Excavations in the mountains need to be carried out under the constant supervision of competent geologists. A log-in in every detail of tunnel construction must be maintained to ensure that safety norms are not being flouted. Also, geologists have repeatedly asked why the tunnel construction had been undertaken very close to the Main Central Thrust, a tectonic fault line present in the Himalayas which poses a major risk to roads and tunnels.

Obviously this evaluation process was not followed; several NHIDCL officials admitted off the record that the quantum of debris had increased from 50-55 m to 65-70m in the Silkyara tunnel and this increase was being attributed to a lack of proper “geological inputs”. It is shocking to learn that a major tunnel of this size was being constructed without conducting a detailed topographical survey. Such a brutal cave-in could have been avoided if extra support had been given at the zones identified as the loose part of the stretch.

Questions are also being asked about the shoddily prepared Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) that are hurriedly being put together for such major infrastructural projects being pushed through in these ecologically fragile zones.

In an attempt to wash his hands of all responsibility, Minister of Roads and Surface Transport Nitin Gadkari tweeted on November 5 criticising the quality of DPRs being prepared for road projects. Speaking at the Indian Road Congress at Gandhinagar he said, “DPR makers... What words should I use for them? I have never seen people doing such shoddy (ghatiya) quality (of work)... tell them (the DPR makers) exactly what I said… they sit at home, look at Google and make DPRs. Accidents are happening.” He added, “The important thing is making a 101 per cent perfect DPR without compromising on design and quality. Is this a good thing that there are five lakh accidents in the country and 1.5 lakh deaths (every year)?”

The key question to ask Gadkari and his huge team of technocrats and bureaucrats is why they are not reviewing the content of a DPR before starting work on a project. Surely a ministry such as his has the expertise to evaluate the DPRs before a project gets executed.

The other equally crucial question that is being asked is why no safety exit route had been provided through which the workers could have escaped. The 41 workers ,as also their colleagues helping in the excavation work outside the tunnel, revealed that earlier large cement pipes had been placed on one side to provide an escape route but these had been removed by the authorities.

Crucial questions regarding the tunnel collapse and the Maharashtra Samruddhi Expressway remain unanswered to this day. Does some kind of quid pro quo exist between raids by the Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax officials and the allocation of projects to specific donors? If there had been no money laundering or evasion of taxes, then why were they raided in the first place? Also, should crucial infrastructural projects in sensitive regions be handed over to companies who have found to be guilty of some kind of misdeamour? And if these projects have resulted in mishaps due to faulty planning and implementation, surely the public needs to be informed about what exactly is going on and what corrective measures will be taken to ensure no future disasters take place?

Rashme Sehgal is an author and an independent journalist

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