In U’khand, landslide lessons lost: construction and security lobbies overrule experts

With 174 workers at the hydro-electric projects, Rishiganga and Tapovan Vishnugadh, yet to be rescued five days after the flash flood, chances of their survival are receding

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

SMA Kazmi

Construction lobby and the mafia dealing in Himalayan timber and stone, in league with politicians and administrators, have been pushing a development agenda in the Himalayas in ‘national interest’. National security considerations have also overtaken environmental and ecological concerns. Experts’ opinion has often been sidelined in the state and the report of an expert committee on safeguarding glaciers is gathering dust in the state secretariat since 2006.

And although each hill district has a geologist posted to advise the administration on feasibility of projects, there is no evidence that warnings have been taken seriously.

After the Kedarnath tragedy in which more than 5000 people perished, an expert committee headed by eminent scientist Dr Ravi Chopra had recommended that all hydro-electric projects above 2000 meters should be halted. The Supreme Court had also intervened then and halted 23 hydro-electric projects in the state.

Permissions continued to be given. “Who is responsible for giving such permissions and why. Such people need to be held accountable,” says Padambhushan Dr Anil Joshi, Founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO), referring to permissions for hydro-electric projects in the vicinity of the Nanda Devi Biosphere zone.

As reported this week, people of Reini village, the epi-centre of the 1970 Chipko movement, had moved Nainital high court in 2018 against the Rishiganga project, pointing out risks of blasting. The state government chose to push the issue under the carpet.

The Supreme Court is also slated to hear the pending issue of ‘Char Dham’ road project on February 17. The project plans to connect the four Hindu shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. Dr Ravi Chopra, chairman of the high-powered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had recommended that the road should not be more than five and a half meters wide as against 12 meters which was proposed. The Union government however argued in court that due to national security reasons, roads bordering China should be wider.

The committee with 24 members was split with 21 members agreeing to the national security justification with the other three including Dr Chopra opposing the move. “Let the court decide,” says a dejected Dr Chopra.

The Rishikesh-Karnaprayag railway project also requires tunneling and interference with the slopes of the fragile mountains. The government proposes to extend the railway line to connect all the four dhams.

Use of explosives to blast mountains for making roads has already led to massive deforestation. A study conducted in 1984 had revealed that landslides caused more devastation in deforested areas.The study found that 148 landslides took place on slopes where the tree cover was less than 40 per cent and 118 took place where the tree cover was more than 60 per cent. The study found that debris in the afforested area was 12 cubic meters compared to 26 cubic meters in deforested areas. Roads, built without proper surveys, invariably cause new landslides or reactivate old ones.

The Himalayas are among the youngest, tallest and the most fragile mountain ranges in the world and are still in the making. However, roads, hydro-electric projects and railway tracks have disturbed the fragility of the Himalayas.

Landslides and cloudbursts normally occur in the monsoon season but last Sunday’s flash flood in Rishi Ganga occurred at the peak of winter, and that too a few days after snowfall. But there is insufficient data to understand fully what is happening and why.

Geologists point to seismic movements constantly taking place. On an average, nearly 200 earthquakes of smaller magnitudes occur every year in the Uttaranchal region alone. Most of these are undetected by local communities. And while thousands of landslides have been occurring in the Himalayas every year, they are noticed briefly only when people lose lives or properties are destroyed.

Apart from geological factors, changes in the land-use pattern in the mountains has also led to the increase in the frequency and magnitude of landslides. Most of the roads are carved out on the banks of the river valleys and towns are situated on these roads. Every monsoon during floods most of these roads are washed away disrupting the road communications.

The destruction of forests and the vegetative cover that binds the top soil has been going on at an ever-increasing pace of various developmental activities. Urbanization and development of new townships and conversion of forest land into agricultural and horticulture holdings have also contributed.

Changes in the architecture of the houses in the hills - the increasing use of brick and concrete instead of the traditional mud and wood – are resulting in higher casualty figures when disasters strike.

Scientists say that while landslides can occur anywhere and at any time, unlike earthquakes, their occurrence can be predicted to a large extent. They also believe that a separate institution dealing with mountain hazards and landslides in particular is required. But the proposed Centre for Landslides Study and Control is yet to come up.

NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) claims that the ministry of Mines will be setting up a Centre for Landslides Research, Studies and Management in a landslide-prone state.

But scientists like Dr Chopra of People’s Science Institute (PSI) are pessimistic. “No such measure will help because scientific institutions set up by the government and under government’s control side with the government. The only solution is to make people accountable for damages, be they policy planners or those who implement policies,” he says.

A proper geological and geo-technical survey is vital before launching any developmental project in the hills, including the preparation of landslide-hazard zonation maps, so that prior knowledge about the status of the area to be undertaken for development is available.

Even before the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013, eminent environmentalist Prof G.D. Aggarwal alias Swami Sanad been fighting against bigger hydro-electric projects in Himalayas particularly on river Ganga since 2008. He had forced the state government in 2008 to abandon Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati hydro-electric project.

He had undertaken an indefinite fast in June 2018, demanding an uninterrupted flow of the river Ganga. But with the Government ignoring the fast, he passed away in October 2018.

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