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Who Is Legally Liable For The Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse?

The collapse of the tunnel in Uttarkashi trapping 41 workers re-establishes the sensitivity of the hilly regions and puts the focus back on how vital it is to balance between the ecological concerns and defense requirements of the country. The tunnel which is a part of the Rs. 12,000 crore Char Dham project had its legal battle over the years.

In 2021, the Supreme Court allowed the widening of roads for the Char-Dham project in Uttarakhand when safety concerns relating to landslides were raised. The government's plea stated that landslides occurred in various parts of countries not necessarily due to road construction and the issue was related to the defense of the country.

The legal battle in 2021:

Earlier, the limit to the width of the roads in hilly areas was 10 meters. In 2018, new standards were introduced which limited the width of the roads to 5.5 meters. Since the Char Dam Highway project had already started, the older guidelines were followed. A PIL was filed by an NGO citing ecological concerns against the 10-meter roads. The respondent's (government) contention was that the 10-meter roads were necessary for smooth transport of defense equipment during emergency times since Uttarakhand shares a 350-km border with China and a reduced width will act as a huge difficulty considering the sensitivity of the region.

The defense ministry stated that those were feeder stretches leading to other roads that are under the direct control of the Border Roads Organization. The ministry contended that since the roads that are connected to those feeder roads were highly developed for easy transport of defense equipment, the feeder roads which act as a strategic connector should also be developed to the same standards placing weight on the persisting standoff between India and China.

The legal issue was not related to the construction of the roads but to the width of the roads since Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 allows the de-reservation of forests for any other purpose other than reforestation and cultivation.

Who is legally liable for the tunnel collapse in Uttarkashi?

The workers are trapped inside the buffer zone and their movement is restrained beyond that for several days. Going by the legal context, a tort has been committed against the 41 workers by negligence. Negligence is a tort which means that damage is caused due to the breach of duty of care owed. Since the government authority is the employer of the trapped workers, they have the duty of care to ensure that the workers are functioning in a safe environment and they would be liable for the damage in the case of no available defenses. Let us look at the general defenses here.

The defense of inevitable accident is available here. Inevitable accident refers to that the accident could not have been prevented by a reasonable person through ordinary care and caution. It simply refers to the unavoidance of an accident although reasonable care is taken to prevent it. The burden is on the defendant (government in this circumstance) to prove that there was no negligence.

In this circumstance, the collapse of the tunnel was caused due to a landslide leading to debris formation eventually leading to the collapse. The act clearly was an Act of God but to prove an inevitable accident, it has to be proved that the damage could not have been prevented even in the existence of reasonable care by the government authorities.

There was a report by ISRO called 'Landslide Atlas of India' which stated Uttarakhand was most vulnerable to natural calamities in the Himalayan region. There have been instances of slope inability and an increase in the number of landslides in the present year in Uttarakhand.

Beyond all these safety concerns, the rock type in that particular area was very weak which is prone to landslides. As these safety concerns were present, it boils down to the question of whether the state authorities were aware of these risks and did not act to prevent/reduce any of these risks.

The defense of inevitable accidents can only be taken if the state authorities prove that they had taken necessary steps and reasonable care in countering these risks involved and also prove that they took necessary steps to prevent the damage caused.

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