The drive from the hill stations from Solan to Nahan on National Route 7 in Himachal Pradesh is a revelation. There are piles of downed trees, some half a mile long, lined up along the causeway every few miles. The corollary of all this cutting of trees is that the slopes of the mountains seem bare and desolate, devoid of shrubs, plants and trees that hold the ground.
As expected, two days after traveling this road, we received a Whatsapp video of a large landslide (150 meters) that took place on July 30 near the village of Kali Dhank in the Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh (National Highway 707, Paonta to Shillai). The landslide had a negative impact on thousands of villagers from the 50 panchayats in this area, who now find it difficult to access basic facilities. The road is likely to remain blocked for another fortnight, stopping all traffic on this road.
The NH7 passes the village of Badwas in Nahan, where another landslide happened around the same time. Fortunately, no casualties have been reported from here. A team of scientists sent by the Geological Survey of India who visited Kali Dhank’s website on August 3 and 4, the limestone quarries at the foot of the hills were responsible for triggering the collapse. The GSI team suggested measures to strengthen the slope, but it will be years before this slope regenerates.
The point is, landslides have become the norm in the Himalayas. News has arrived from a major landslide who buried 40 people under rubble in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. Thirteen bodies were found and 30 others remain buried. A few weeks ago, nine tourists were killed and three injured in multiple landslides in this neighborhood.
The rapid construction and extension of roads is continued without taking into account social and environmental considerations. consequences. The frequent use of dynamite, improperly clearing slopes, and indiscriminate dumping of manure has created a situation in which locals who had previously lobbied for connectivity are now bitterly complaining about how road construction is causing loss of life. human lives and livelihoods.
The inhabitants of the villages along the 900 km long Char Dham road are armed, fidget and hold dharnas at regular intervals. Char Dham Pariyojana has particular prestige within the ruling party as it involves building a route to the pilgrimage centers of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
Former Uttarakhand minister Dinesh Dhanai held a dharna day in Tehri district last week to protest the indiscriminate dumping of debris. “This mud pool is now pouring into homes and farms and destroying crops,” Dhani said, complaining that this had become an annual feature during the rainy season.
Sushila Bhandari, along with a team of dedicated environmentalists living in the villages that dot the Kedarnath Valley, is also fighting the fallout from Char Dham’s expansion. “Entrepreneurs use dynamite for road expansion and to build tunnels for local hydroelectric projects. The result is that we, the villagers, are faced with more and more landslides. We are terrified of leaving the house and being confined indoors for weeks. Several villagers died and others injured but we do not have exact figures because the administration refuses to publish the full list, ”Bhandari explains.
Bhandari was jailed for 54 days while campaigning against the construction of the Tehri Dam. The judge asked him to ask for a bond. She refused, saying she was fighting to save the Himalayas and its ecology and, if necessary, was willing to spend the rest of her life in prison. “The construction of roads and more than 500 hydroelectric projects, accompanied by a network of tunnels, have carved out the Himalayas. Village after village has been destroyed. Century-old trees and foliage have been cut down, ”she said in a voice heavy with sorrow.
Kedarnath, however, is still a popular destination among BJP leaders. “When Interior Minister Amit Shah came to Kedarnath, a group of activists came to meet him. He assured us that no dynamite would be used in these mountains but it did not stop. I took videos of how the rules are flouted and sent them to her in vain, “she laments.
An environmentalist from the NGO Ganga Avahan, Hemant Dhyani, believes that road construction must maintain a delicate balance with the environment, especially in the hills. “Scientists believe the Himalayan terrain can support roads up to 5.5 meters wide. Until 2018, this was the standard followed by the government. The decision to extend the width of the Char Dham to more than 10 meters is linked to the authorization of the Ministry of Road Transport to collect a 60% toll tax on this road, ”he said. “Unfortunately, the enlargement destroys these slopes even more,” says Dhyani.
Environmental activists argue that initially villagers were not opposed to the massive push for road construction or widening under Prime Minister Sadak Yojana (PMSY) in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. They became increasingly suspicious when the Ministry of Road Transport proceeded with the Char Dham project without environmental authorizations.
“The Ministry of Road Transport has allocated Rs. 12,000 crore to widen the road 900 kilometers from Char Dham, which is over Rs. 8-10 crore per kilometer. In other PMSY projects, the budget is around Rs. 80 lakh per kilometer, ”explains Dhyani.
Mallika Bhanot, also with Ganga Avahan, works closely with villagers affected by landslides. She says, “The hills are cut much steeper than recommended. However, embankment protection measures, such as protective walls, are much lower than recommended. Unfortunately, there are no recovery drains to divert seepage along the slopes to the nearest drain. They are wreaking havoc in the Himalayas.
Bhandari and other affected villagers filed a DIP in the Nainital High Court three years ago. Their petition warned that “any further cutting of the base of the mountain for widening or cutting of trees would cause an unprecedented activation of landslides.” They wrote that even existing highways could be blocked if this happened, which would be “counterproductive even to normal traffic flow.” It seems they have been proven correct.
After each landslide, the NDRF and ITBP teams come to help people to rescue and submit an examination which attributes the reasons for the landslide. A senior NDRF official said on condition of anonymity that the growing number of landslides is due to climate change and increased human activity. However, he said no preventive measures were listed to stop such events.
Reenu Paul, a Dehradun-based social activist who has called for a halt to indiscriminate road construction in Uttarakhand, said: “There has to be a coordinated comprehensive plan to build roads. We are witnessing a strange phenomenon where, due to political influence, some villages are connected by several roads. Paul cites the villages of Maldevta and Thatyud to emphasize this point.
Dr Vikram Gupta, a scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, says road construction and widening in Uttarakhand does not follow any standard operating procedures. “Once a mountain slope is cut, it must be immediately protected. Unfortunately, in our state, no procedure is followed. Naturally, these slopes will fail and it’s no surprise that we have regular landslides all year round, ”Gupta explains.
He says: “A group of scientists, including myself, studied 44 landslide sensitive areas in Himachal Pradesh, five of which were extremely unstable. But the problem in Himachal has been eased by climate change and the concentration of precipitation. “
Vikram Soni, professor emeritus at JNU and physicist and environmentalist, is horrified by the unforeseen expansion of roads in mountainous areas. “On the Chinese side, the Himalayas are [made of harder] rock but on the Indian side it is mostly shale, which is a weak sedimentary rock. The ecology around these roads, including the forest canopy and the grasses and shrubs that bind the soil, will take 30 years to recover. And on the slopes of the mountains where two roads have been built, the slope may never straighten out, ”explains Soni.
History tells us that Char Dham was a pilgrimage on foot, a chance to commune with nature. “Here they have become road pilgrimages. All you get from going to these places is the diesel fumes, ”Soni said.
The 400% increase in carbon black deposits recently detected on the Gangotri Glacier is the result of automobile traffic. Given the severe consequences of climate change, we must let the valleys rest so that they can regenerate. Road building and excessive tourism must be curbed.
The author is a freelance journalist. Views are personal