North-East Delhi’s densely populated Kachchi Khajoori, which has few reasons to celebrate as it lacks even the most basic civic amenities, wore a festive look on Thursday morning as hundreds of locals thronged the colony gate to welcome the rat miners who became national heroes after rescuing 41 men from the partially collapsed Silkyara Bend-Barkot highway tunnel in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand.
The proud residents carried Wakeel Hassan, Rashid Ansari, Naseem Malik, Feroz Qureshi, Irshad Ansari and Munna Qureshi, the six rat miners who belong to the colony, on their shoulders.
Muhammad Naved was so excited that he came all the way from Meerut to receive his elder brother Rashid, one of the rat miners.
“I arrived yesterday from my hometown Meerut. They had informed us that we will reach Delhi at 11 am. We reached the pusta to welcome him with garland at 10 am and waited for hours,” Naved told Patriot.
“People are happy back in our hometown too. Yesterday, sweets were distributed there.”
The tough operation ended on Wednesday successfully with the rescue of 41 workers, who were stuck there for 17 days.
“Aisa swagat to hamari shaadi main bhi nahi hua (Even our marriage wasn’t celebrated with such fanfare),” Rashid, 33, told Patriot.
Rashid lives in a small one-room house with his three children and wife in Shriram Colony, Rajiv Nagar in Khajoori. He has been a rat miner since 2007. The other five also live nearby and are daily wagers.
“We worked continuously for 24 hours with the collaboration of foreign experts. During the operation, we faced difficulty in breathing but continued to work and came out only after we were done,” said Rashid.
He recalled that they had to dig and then push the pipe inside the tunnel.
“It took us 10 hours to reach the first pipe in the tunnel while the second took us only three hours. We were confident that we could do it and never lost hope.”
The team of 12 rat miners, including the six from here and six from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, dug for three consecutive days. After digging for 18 metres, they finally reached the 41 workers and rescued them.
“Relatives of the workers stuck in the tunnel were waiting with baited breath. They were desperately inquiring about the well-being of the workers. When we saw them, our hearts moved and we started to work faster,” he added.
This is not permanent employment for them.
“It stops during the rainy season for four months. We are doing this since it was call of the duty. We keep looking for other work for a living during this season. The government should think about us,” said Rashid.
Rat mining is a manual drilling work which is done by skilled workers, and has received criticism too. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned the practice in 2014, and retained the ban in 2015.
When Patriot reached the home of Wakeel Hussain, the leader of this team, a crowd was already there and people were garlanding and clicking themselves with all the members of the team. He is an experienced rat miner, involved in this work for two decades and registered with a firm Rockwell Enterprise Pvt. Ltd. in 2018.
“There were international rescue workers. The authorities did not allow us in. But when we saw them struggling after the pipe had got stuck and couldn’t be moved, we asked them to give us one chance to help. They eventually relented,” said Hussain.
“We worked with hoe, pan, and a small trolley and were full of confidence and passion about the endeavour.”
Hussain lives in a temporary structure as his house was razed in a demolition drive.
“I requested authorities to not destroy my home. But it was demolished without notice. I don’t want anything from the government, except the security of my home.”
They are yet to receive the Rs 50,000 award announced by Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami.
“We went there without any greed for reward, and only because we wanted to help. But we are yet to receive a reward.”
Wakeel’s wife Shabana Hussain couldn’t control her excitement seeing her husband becoming a star.
“I am unable to express my feelings. It’s amazing and so exciting. This is the happiest moment of my life. We were watching the news continuously and praying to Allah. Ab bahut achchha lag raha hai (now it feels great). The big thing is that all have come out completely safe.”
Around Gali No. 3, where all the six members live, there was celebratory mood. Neighbours and even relatives were coming out of their homes to congratulate and talking about this incident in the street corners.
“We are happy that all 41 workers (our brothers) have come out after 17 days and reached their homes safely. They couldn’t celebrate Diwali in their homes but can do so now,” said Abdul Sattar, a neighbour of Munna Qureshi.
“Our six brothers contributed to this rescue effort. This is also a ‘message of unity’. We were so excited that we celebrated this moment with crackers last night.”