The 'best minister' and the worst disaster in hill states

Will Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari take responsibility for the devastation in Himachal and Uttarakhand, and resign? 

A road caves in in Uttarakhand (Photo: National Herald archives)
A road caves in in Uttarakhand (Photo: National Herald archives)

Rashme Sehgal

Several thousand kilometres of newly constructed ‘all-weather’ roads have been washed away in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand this year. But the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) remains unperturbed, far from apologetic.

The ministry of road transport and highways, to which the NHAI reports, has also maintained a studied silence. Is nobody responsible for this mess, then?

Nitin Gadkari, hailed as one of the ‘best ministers’ in the Union government, someone whose name often crops up as a possible successor to PM Narendra Modi, has blamed the losses on nature’s fury.

Experts and environmentalists, however, are livid at this passing of the buck—they claim Gadkari knew the consequences of the NHAI’s reckless decisions; that he had been alerted but had chosen to ignore the warnings.

Gadkari knew only too well, they say, when the NHAI conceived of the Char Dham project in 2016 that this network of roads was being constructed in a fragile mountainous area that comprised of shale rock, which is a weak sedimentary rock.

Instead of taking the technically sound advice of independent scientists, geologists and seismologists experienced in this terrain, he chose to copy the American paradigm of building a ‘web’ of roads—without paying heed to the fact that road construction in the US is also governed by strict environmental protocols.

The NHAI’s unplanned engineering constructions, unsuitable to the terrain, have destabilised the hill slopes and are a major contributing factor to the magnitude of destruction that we are witnessing in the Himalayan region this year.

And now, Gadkari is trying to absolve himself and the government of responsibility for the extensive damage that has claimed more than 600 human lives and has left hundreds of cattle dead, crops destroyed and the livelihoods of lakhs of people endangered. The minister, in a recent interview to the Statesman, conveniently attributes these tragic losses to Nature’s fury, or prakop.

Jawaharlal Nehru University’s professor emeritus of physics Vikram Soni says, “This road construction spree has had a devastating impact on the fragile mountain ecology. The hillsides are now scarred irreversibly by landslides because the roads have been hewn out with scant concern for the weak hill slopes.

Gadkari, however, blames the mountainous rivers in these two states for having suddenly changed their course, contributing to the overall devastation in the area. In the same interview, he advises citizens “not to build their homes by the side of these rivers” and feels regulatory measures need to be introduced to stop this.

If the minister recognises the problem of rivers changing course, then why is the NHAI constructing the overbridge that is part of the Rs 13,000 crore Delhi–Dehradun Expressway on the Asan riverbed? “Building this overbridge is not a good idea,” says Reenu Paul, a Dehradun-based environmentalist.

“Asan river is in full spate and only a fifth of each pillar was above the water in the last week of August. Prolonged submersion in water is damaging the structure already.” “Worse, the construction of this expressway is weakening the already existing road that goes through the Shivalik hills, causing cave-ins,” adds Sreedhar Ramamurthi, a geologist with IIT, Roorkee.

The fact is that rivers in these hills states have changed course or caused flooding because road construction work has resulted in thousands of tonnes of debris, boulders and muck being carelessly dumped downslope. The debris has made its way into the rivers flowing in the valleys below, thereby adding to the mayhem.

Senior advocate Sanjay Parikh had filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), highlighting how “[one] kilometre length of road constructed on hilly terrain required the removal of around 60,000 cubic metres of debris. But the state government has failed to explain what they are doing with the debris”.

Gadkari talks about how he has invited a team of experts from Switzerland to study the whole gamut of issues that has arisen from this tragedy. Does India need these expensive foreign consultants, though, to tell us what the causes of this tragedy are? There are enough of our own scientists who are, literally, far better versed in the lay of this land.

Professor C.P. Rajendran, one of the world’s foremost seismologists and earth scientists at the National Institute of Advanced Science, Bengaluru, says, “The rivers change course because their natural paths have been blocked by the muck generated by road construction being dumped in the river valleys. Trying to control the rivers by engineered structures is yet another recipe for more disasters.”

This last statement of Rajendran’s was in response to Gadkari stating that one way to prevent the rivers from flooding or changing their course would be “to erect walls along the roadside”. Gadkari has actually said, “Multi-storey buildings and hotels by the riverside are unacceptable. Instead, people should be given spaces by extracting space from the forest areas for the new townships.”

This is in direct contradiction to his own Facebook post of 21 March 2022, on the occasion of International Day of Forests, in which he wrote “let us pledge to protect and conserve the forests and be more aware and vigilant, and make informed consumption-related choices to save the forests”.

“Where does the minister stand—on the side of conservation of forests or with those who want to see the destruction of this most precious natural asset in the name of development?” asks Rajendran. “We are already facing a serious loss of forest cover in the hills with implications for soil erosion and loss of biodiversity.”

There are even more serious allegations made against Gadkari, to which he has no answers. He has been repeatedly questioned on why the mountain slopes above the road are being cut vertically and not in a terraced manner in order to minimise damage to the environment. Since no proper geological studies were undertaken and since even fundamental engineering principles were not followed, there were apprehensions of constant slippages and slides taking place, particularly during the monsoon months.

And this is exactly what we have been seeing for the last three months. Ravi Chopra, a scientist heading the People’s Institute and a member of the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee set up to oversee the construction of the Char Dham project, continues to question the decision to build wider roads.

He points out that both the ministry of environment and forests and the ministry of defence had initially agreed to the widening of the road to 5.5 metres, and then this was extended to 7 metres. Chopra asks, “What pressure was put on the defence ministry to make them change their minds and ask for an 11-metre-wide road?”

“Now that these roads have broken, they will happily spend thousands of crores more on getting them repaired,” says an embittered Chopra. He believes, “People in these states need to undertake a class action suit for manslaughter and for damaging the environment, stating that their lives are at stake.”

Hemant Dhyani, an activist associated with the NGO Ganga Avahan, had his own explanation for why the ministry of roads and transport insisted on going ahead with this road widening project.

Dhyani had said four years ago, “The ministry (of road transport) is spending Rs 12,000 crore to widen the 900 km Char Dham (road), which works out to more than Rs 8–10 crore per kilometre, whereas the typical budget for hill roads is around Rs 80 lakh per kilometre.”

A growing number of experts feel that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India needs to investigate the cost of building highways across the country. The government, meanwhile, is bent upon facilitating a ‘belief-based’ tourism industry in the Himalayas, so that lakhs and lakhs of tourists-on-wheels are motivated to make their journeys to the temples.

This influx encourages hoteliers and others to expand building activities dangerously close to the floodplains as well. The Himalayan terrain, then, is overloaded— with construction activities well beyond its carrying capacity.

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