Havoc in the hills: Say no to deadly 'development'

What the devastation caused by the floods in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh reveals and conceals

A massive landslide resulted in the collapse of a temple near Summer Hill in Shimla and the loss of at least nine human lives, 14 August (Photo: IANS)
A massive landslide resulted in the collapse of a temple near Summer Hill in Shimla and the loss of at least nine human lives, 14 August (Photo: IANS)

Rashme Sehgal

Over 50 people lost their lives just last week in Himachal Pradesh, including those killed in the temple collapse in Shimla, caused by heavy rains.

With over 300 people dead since the start of the monsoons, 30-odd missing and some 2,000 roads damaged, it may be the state’s worst disaster in 50 years. And even though neighbouring Uttarakhand recorded ‘only’ 30 deaths over the past few days, its environmental situation is even more calamitous.

The car that was ferrying five pilgrims to Kedarnath was hit by boulders in a landslide triggered by incessant rains. All five died. Himachal’s chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has demanded that a commission of inquiry, led by a retired Supreme Court judge, be instituted to consider the factors that led to this environmental disaster, which has rendered hundreds of families homeless and caused damages of over Rs 10,000 crore.

Sukhu believes it is not just heavy rains but faulty developmental planning that has resulted in broken bridges, shattered roads and major disruptions in water supply, power lines and telecom services.

While the Himachal chief minister has sought Rs 14,000 crore as compensation from the Centre, his government has sought Rs 658 crore as damages from the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for the devastation caused to the 126 MW Larji hydel project in Aut Mandi, due to alleged faulty construction of its four-lane road.

A letter to this effect was sent to Union minister of transport and highways Nitin Gadkari, highlighting that four-laning the road extended it 4 metres into the Beas river, making the river itself narrower and more prone to flooding. This was pointed out to the NHAI in 2019, but they “did not pay heed”.

The letter also highlights how, following the heavy rains of 9–11 July 2023, the water level in the Beas rose four metres above the road, resulting in silt entering the hydel project. Power generation has perforce been halted.

Repairs will be completed only by the end of 2023. The state government is therefore demanding compensation for the revenues lost. Meanwhile, former deputy mayor of Shimla Tikender Singh Panwar has taken the extreme step of lodging an FIR against the NHAI and GR Infrastructure, the company executing the project, accusing them of criminal negligence in the construction of the four-lane highway between Solan and Parwanoo.

Panwar holds it was constructed in violation of environmental norms and called for an investigation into whether these stemmed from collusion or neglect. The FIR stated: ‘Instead of cutting the mountain in slopes, they have been cut vertically, and this will be a perpetual problem for the people in whose name this development project has been done.’

It also alleged ‘criminal neglect leading to massive loss to the natural ecosystem, human lives, assets, and financial loss to the people owing to their inability to carry their [agricultural] produce to the market’.

No such FIR has been forthcoming in Uttarakhand, where vertical cutting for the Char Dham Road Pariyojana—leading up to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath—and the construction of a rail link between Rishikesh and Karnaprayag has resulted in even greater environmental damage.

The Char Dham scheme has violated every conceivable ecological safeguard. According to the norms laid down by the ministry of environment and forests, any road construction project longer than 100 km requires an environmental impact assessment.

But for this extended 900 km project—which passes through 529 landslide-prone areas—this rule was conveniently bypassed by the ministry of road transport and highways, which chose to divide it into 53 ‘segments’, claiming each as an independent project!

Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu visits Jadon village in Solan district
where at least seven people were killed in a cloudburst on 14 August. (Photo: IANS)
Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu visits Jadon village in Solan district where at least seven people were killed in a cloudburst on 14 August. (Photo: IANS)

The Uttarakhand government used the same subterfuge to get around the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, by showing that only small chunks of forests were being cut down and not a cumulative 50.8 hectare—an area that mandates prior clearances.

Mallika Bhanot, an environmental activist who has worked in the Uttarakashi district, says, “The entire forest area has been cleverly divided into smaller segments in order to avoid showing the comprehensive whole, with a cumulative impact.”

According to environmental geologist K.S. Valdiya, who has studied this region for many decades at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, the road building authority committed a “criminal oversight” in ignoring the state’s geological and hydrological features: “These features are well-mapped and documented. But [the] engineers and builders choose to overlook them.”

The Char Dham projects also flout several scientific norms. The foremost is that the seismic fault lines of this earthquake-prone state were not kept in mind while building the roads! Valdiya warned that these fault lines, which are active and see back-and-forth movements, have been intersected in many places by roads. More dangerously, some roads have been built along the lines themselves.

Consequently, even tiny movements in the ground can weaken their very foundations, making whole stretches susceptible to cave-ins. The second area of neglect is meteorological, with road engineers not providing for rainwater drainage!

Valdiya believes that a 1–2 metres long bridge was required in some places where the engineers have built small culverts. Even where drains have been built, they have been filled up with debris from the cutting. As a result, this year’s Char Dham yatra has become a nightmare, literally life-threatening.

With incessant rainfall battering Uttarakhand for the last two months, 500 to 800 pilgrims have been stranded in one place or another practically on a daily basis, due to frequent landslides. Several houses have collapsed.

An in-house PWD survey has shown that over 75 bridges in the state are unfit for use. At least five key bridges have collapsed in the last two months, most recently the one over the Malan river, connecting Kotdwar–Sigaddi–Haridwar, leaving 50,000 people cut off and struggling for supplies.

According to information received from the State Emergency Operation Centre (SEOC), 58 people have lost their lives and 37 people have been injured this monsoon, while 19 are still missing. But the SEOC also admits on its website that these figures need an update.

In addition, 1,167 houses have been damaged or completely destroyed in Uttarakhand. Large tracts of agricultural land have been washed away wholesale.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, chaired by Jairam Ramesh, in a recent report drew the government’s attention to how escalating tourism in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh has precipitated the construction of unauthorised structures—homestays, guest houses, resorts, hotels and restaurants.

These largely illegal constructions have resulted in over-exploitation of natural resources and also triggered other encroachments. The committee called upon the environment ministry to curb ecologically damaging activities to save the Himalayas and detailed the measures to monitor and curtail unregulated construction of physical infrastructure and ‘developmental projects’.

Yet despite the monumental tragedy facing the state, the Pushkar Singh Dhami government shows scant concern for the well-being of the public or the ecology of this hill state. Senior government sources say there is a move to amend the current Environmental Site Assessment notification of February 1989, which was introduced to protect the Doon Valley.

It was instituted specifically to prevent change of land use, especially where land had been set aside for grazing or other environmentally protective activities. The Doon Valley notification had been issued on the directions of the Supreme Court to holistically protect the valley’s unique environment, given that it is a key watershed area and the starting point for several rivers that flow into the Ganga basin.

Doing away with the ESA will mean greenlighting ‘category red’ industries, whose construction had been prohibited in these vulnerable notified areas. Removing its safeguards would allow the state to set up several harmful industries, including limestone quarrying.

Though forest minister Subodh Uniyal has ostentatiously gone on record to state that he only wants to do away with the ESA so that the state can resume development of slaughterhouses and other non-polluting industries, environmentalists like Reenu Paul fear the worst.

Industries like quarrying are a money spinner for certain key business interests—and the political class that is supported by them. Meanwhile, Gadkari has waded publicly into this debate, as minister of road transportation.

In an online interview that was widely publicised on social media (where Sukhu was also present), Gadkari was asked for his solution to the flooding of the Himalyan rivers. He replied that these rivers “need to be straightened out” and the boulders they carried should be given to [the NHAI] “as we are in need of them”.

Gadkari also opined that steep walls should be built along the rivers to prevent flooding, revealing his ignorance of the force and velocity with which these rivers flow during the monsoon months. It is for this reason that Sukhu believes a commission of inquiry in which scientists, the public and other specialists can come together as stakeholders is the only way forward.

The Himachal chief minister, at least, seems keen to develop a more scientific and inclusive method of ‘developmental’ planning for the future.

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Published: 22 Aug 2023, 8:33 AM