All weather disasters in the making

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All weather disasters in the making

Monday, 03 September 2018 | lokesh Ohri

lives in the Himalayas are going cheap. In the mountains of Uttarakhand, we have obstinately refused to learn from repetitive disasters, the last one taking an uncountable toll of human lives. In normal circumstances, for a ruling dispensation founded on a particular religious sentiment, disruption of lives and ecologies around some of its most sacred sites would have been political suicide. But we live in extraordinary times, and the social fabric here, as in other parts of the country, has been so torn to shreds that the land of the fierce Chipko and anti-dam movements, fails to even notice the destruction being unleashed on it. In fact, most people and sections of the media dismiss landslides as a temporary inconvenience.

"landslides rising" is not merely a spoof on the Government slogan of a nation's imagined rise to glory, but a horrific reality in the mountainsides. Across the Char Dham, on roads leading to the four sacred sites—Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri—hill cutting, tree felling and dumping of debris are combining lethally to cause massive landslides this monsoon season. People of Uttarakhand are paying a heavy price for the ill-conceived all-weather road that is being built, in complete disregard to environmental safety.

What is really happening, in complete contravention to all environmental safeguards, is nothing short of criminal. The Government of India has successfully demonstrated that it is very easy to circumvent safeguards laid down by its own agencies. To avoid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Char Dham Mahamarg road expansion was split into 53 segments, each less than 100 kilometres long. Any project less than 100 kilometres does not need an EIA. The EIA, like a fuse, provides surge-protection during monsoon, earthquakes and landslides. Since no environmental safeguards were taken before the project was implemented, the project has led to miserable conditions for people, ecology and economy of Uttarakhand. 25,303 trees, most of them Peepal trees on the pilgrimage routes, planted years ago in memory of ancestors have already been felled across 356 km of forest land, for road widening. No count exists for trees less than 30 cm in diameter, or other vegetation that the mountains have been stripped of.

landslides have crushed thousands of trees. Vegetation on the hill slopes, critical to stabilising slopes, is being removed with impunity, leaving mud exposed for erosion during monsoon, triggering massive landslides. With all the debris entering the river systems, damage caused to the river systems downstream is also immense.

In fact, for the all-weather road, many mountain sides have been cut at a perilous ninety degrees. With heavy downpours that the mountains have been experiencing regularly, these straight cuts are resulting in massive landslides. Over 500 landslides have formed across the Char Dham routes owing to inappropriate road cutting. Clearing operations have caused debris dumping and vegetation stripping and several lives, livelihoods, homes and agricultural fields have been lost. It is also a known fact that young mountains in the Himalayas, once destabilised, are almost impossible to cure. The case of Varunavat mountain in Uttarkashi, which despite best human efforts is still raining rocks on this disaster prone town, is well known.

But the apathy is not just limited to the forested mountain slopes. Urban spaces, especially hill stations, are also on the brink. Recently, a large section of Nainital’s lower Mall Road collapsed, fuelling anxiety about the fate of this heritage pathway built in the 19th century, by the British. Geologists have raised concerns over the entire incident and said that about 165 metre of the 1.5 km long road is unsafe. The local administration has now been urged to strengthen the road to prevent any future damage. This is the second such incident, which has taken place within a week.

In 2003-2004, a team from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) had observed that old street lamps and trees on the lower Mall, especially below Grand Hotel, were tilting towards the Naini lake. Further research showed that the Sher-Ka-Danda Hill had a proclivity to slide towards the lake.

To keep such this hill safe, learning from the massive landslip of 1880, the British had erected telltale pillars on the hillside in order to keep mountainsides under close observation. A slight tilt in the pillars would indicate an impending landslide. At the time, PWD officials had admitted to the then District Magistrate, that they were no longer observing this practice, as there had been no emergency.

The DM had then questioned them whether they were actually awaiting a disaster before taking precautions. The old records also showed that the drainage of the hill was to be kept north-south, preventing rain water seepage into the upper strata. With the passage of time, all lessons from history have been conveniently forgotten.

In Nainital, a seasoned geo-investigation expert, Manoj Kumar, had advised after a field visit that a detailed geological investigation of the hill needed to be carried out and, thereafter, the surface strata could be stitched across the sliding plane to the bedrock. In answer to the DM's question as to when the hill could slide, he responded that, "it could happen tomorrow, or in a hundred years".

It is unfortunate that the current collapse is likely to be seen, not as a wake up call but as an opportunity for another major civil repair project to reward contractors close to the powers that be.

All over the country, we are witnessing disasters from natural phenomena for which the cumulative impact of human activity and excessive construction in fragile areas is responsible. The Himalayas, however, being the water towers for the country, will only be neglected at the peril of the entire nation.

(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon Thatij)