‘Planning’ for more disasters? 

After the floods and the destruction in its wake have come a torrent of solutions that threaten worse disasters, says Avay Shukla

A landslide near Manali in Himachal Pradesh (photo: Getty Images)
A landslide near Manali in Himachal Pradesh (photo: Getty Images)

Avay Shukla

As I write this (on 9 August), the famed Kullu–Manali national highway has been closed since 11 July and the much-hyped Parwanoo–Solan one has also been shut down since 2 August, with no prospect of reopening in its original form for several weeks.

The Manali (right bank) highway might take months, if not years, to restore. The Pathankot–Mandi highway is also blocked. The mountains, and their rivers, have shown who rules in this terrain. Everyone is blaming the rains, but the real villains are our policymakers—politicians and bureaucrats—and the engineers of the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) and PWD (Public Works Department).

The NHAI has for years been ignoring the pleas of environmentalists and locals to stop this reckless road and dam building, and the PWD has either given short shrift to basic engineering principles or a long rope to contractors for reasons all too obvious to repeat. In the process not only have thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money gone down the khad but hundreds of homes and cars have been washed away and dozens of lives lost.

Writing in The Tribune on 4 August, state PWD minister Vikramaditya Singh asks for a paradigm shift in road planning and construction in the Himalayas (without actually calling off the four-laning frenzy that has swept the state). He stresses on criminal accountability for the lapses, which have resulted in 500+ roads being damaged or destroyed in the recent rains, causing a loss of Rs 5,000 crore to the state, which cannot even pay DA instalments to its employees and pensioners on time.

Is this a mea culpa moment or is he passing the buck to his predecessors? For the fact is that any accountability must begin with the politicians and policymakers of the state who have been sanctioning and funding road projects on a scale that would impress even Mr. Gadkari, without any concern for geology, ecology or engineering principles, and without assessing the need for so many roads, especially the four-lane monstrosities.

The evidence of cupidity, stupidity and worse is now beginning to pile up faster than the silt in the Gobindsagar reservoir. The chief minister himself has said faulty four-laning of the Mandi–Kullu road has resulted in the flooding of the Larji HEP and stoppage of power generation for months. He has demanded compensation of Rs 650 crore from the NHAI.

It now emerges that while four-laning this stretch, the NHAI intruded four metres into the riverbed of the Beas! A criminal case of negligence and corruption has been filed against the NHAI and its contractor for the collapse of the Parwanoo–Solan highway.

The High Court has taken cognisance of the unscientific cutting of hills for road construction and has summoned the Attorney General of India to offer some explanations. The NHAI director has admitted that they have made many mistakes as they had no previous experience of building in the Himalayas, and that this has been a “learning experience” for them.

I wonder if this provides any solace to the thousands who have paid the price for being treated like guinea pigs by incompetent engineers with degrees from dubious institutes. Himachal’s best known environmental NGO, the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, has written to the President of India protesting this kind of ‘development’ and demanding a high-powered committee to probe the causes for the multiple disasters.

It has maintained that hydel projects and road construction, with their consequential deforestation, weakening of the mountain strata, silting of rivers and raising of river beds, are the main reasons for the damage. It is now a proven fact that the destruction in Pandoh and lower Mandi, the market at Sainj, the village of Kasol have been caused by the sudden and belated discharge of waters from the Larji, Parbati III projects and the Pandohdam.

Thousands of trees and sleepers carried by the flood waters reveal the largescale illicit felling of trees under the cover of these projects— more than a thousand trees have been retrieved from just the Pong dam reservoir! One would have expected the state government the NHAI and other policymakers to have taken a step back from these “learning experiences” and pause these projects for a thorough review.

So far, the only such assurance has come from state industries minister Harshwardhan Chauhan, who made a statement on 9 August conceding that four-laning of roads is not suitable for the mountains. This is heartening but the government as a whole appears to have doubled down on its mistakes and seems intent on repeating them.

We now hear that to bypass the sliding mountainside on the Parwanoo–Dharampur stretch, the NHAI will bore tunnels into the mountains. Are they serious or does someone have a macabre sense of humour?

Having devastated the mountains from the outside, will they now disembowel them from the inside—and generate millions more tonnes of muck to choke the rivers and water courses? Isn’t it obvious, even now, that you need to stabilise the sliding portions of the highway, not cut any further into the hillside, restrictthis stretch of the road to just the original two lanes?

This applies to all damaged portions of all four-lane highways, including the almost obliterated Kullu–Manali road. Instead, reports and visuals now indicate that the NHAI has begun ‘restoring’ the Kullu–Manali highway by repeating its earlier mistakes— dumping more earth and rocks on the riverbed in the classic ‘cut and fill’ method to restore the damaged portions.

Even more mind-boggling was the announcement on 8 August that the government has prepared a DPR to channel the Beas river along its entire length, from Palchan (above Manali) to Kullu, a linear distance of about 30 km, for which it has asked the Centre to cough up Rs 1,650 crore. This is a good indication that the government has learnt nothing from the recent (and earlier disasters) and is hell-bent on inflicting even greater environmental calamities on the state.

The Beas is no tame waterway like the Gomti in Lucknow or the Sabarmati in Gujarat—it is a mountain river, a torrent that roars down thousands of feet with a velocity that carries thousands of tonnes of silt, rocks and boulders, which obliterate everything in its path. The river is erratic, rises and falls abruptly with the rains in its catchment area. It cannot be channelled—the sheer force of the water will erode the embankments in no time (as it did with the four-laning), the detritus it carries, unable to spread out, will raise the river bed in the channel and reduce its capacity, inevitably leading to even more flooding.

Any channelling scheme also completely ignores the portents of climate change and the increasing EWEs (extreme weather events). Here is just one statistic to prove the point: according to official data, the rainfall in Kullu district this year, between 7 and 11 July, was 280.1 mm, against the norm of 30.7 mm—an excess of 812 per cent, the highest in the state. (The state average of excess rainfall, incidentally, was 436 per cent).

During the same period, the Beas rose even higher than its historical HFL (high flood level), which was recorded in the 1950s. No channel can adequately provide for such fluctuations, which are bound to increase with global warming; moreover, by constricting the natural flow of the river, the channel will further raise the level of the water to even more dangerous levels. It is no coincidence that the left bank road between Manali and Kullu, which was spared the attention of the NHAI and not widened, still functions with only minor damage.

Surely there is a lesson here staring us in the face? Why can’t the government accept the changing realities and learn to live with this river instead of trying to tame it with the inadequate forces of obsolete engineering? Allow the rivers of the state to flow in their natural channels, stop the encroachments on their flood plains by prohibiting any construction upto HFL, ban any mining activity in them, stop throwing muck into the rivers, stop obstructing the rivers by building dams.

These dams have become lethal weapons as we have seen year after year in Uttarakhand and Himachal, and as has been predicted by any number of expert committees and environmentalists. Their destructive power will only be amplified with the EWEs, which are gradually becoming the norm.

It is time to also review protocols and SOPs for release of water: the discharge should be dictated by considerations of safety of people and property downstream, not by calculations of profit and units generated.

Unfortunately, every politician, bureaucrat and engineer is using climate change as an excuse to deflect attention from their mistakes and to dodge accountability. Mindsets, policies and templates of development need to change. We don’t have much time left.

(Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com)

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