DEHRADUN/CHANDIGARH: One hundred-seventy and counting. That’s the number of landslide incidents, claiming at least 46 lives, in two hill states of north India Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh this year. What’s worrying is that the frequency and number of such disasters have, of late, seen an exponential rise, with Uttarakhand recording an alarming 2900 per cent increase in past five years while in Himachal it has doubled in 2021 from last year.
According to data from Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Department, there were 33 landslide incidents in the state in 2015, claiming 12 lives. The number went up to an alarming 972 in 2020, with 25 deaths. This year, 132 incidents have taken place so far, claiming 12 lives.
Landslides, often triggered by flash floods, have wreaked havoc in Himachal as well. As per the data with the disaster management cell of the revenue department, the state has recorded 37 major landslides since June 13. Of these, 14 took place in the tribal Lahaul-Spiti district alone.
It’s no coincidence that both states are witnessing an increasingly aggressive push to a developmental model that completely disregards the fragile Himalayan topography and ecology. Proliferation of dams, unregulated construction activity in name of expansion of road networks and mindless cutting of trees for such infrastructure projects, according to environmentalists, have made the mountains vulnerable and prone to landslides.
While the multiple dams built in Uttarakhand were already believed to have caused massive environmental damage, the Char Dham Pariyojana (CDP) and the Rishikesh-Karnprayag Railway Line project have entailed deep cutting into the hill slopes and felling of trees to the extent that is recipe for an unmitigated disaster.
Experts point out that insufficient geological studies pertaining to fragility of Uttarakhand Himalayas and inefficiency of expertise and knowledge in government machinery are key factors behind the unscientific approach adopted while executing such projects.
Experts flag rampant construction
Ravi Chopra, environmentalist and chairman of the Supreme Court appointed highpowered committee (HPC) to monitor the CDP — an 889-km road-widening project worth `12,000 crore connecting the four shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, a dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — says, “The state authorities and construction companies simply refuse to recognise the fragile nature of Uttarakhand Himalayas.
Even when weak zones are known, adequate care is not taken and adequate geological investigation is not done. This is primarily due to insufficient time and effort in planning and carrying out geological investigations, spending money to protect/treat landslide prone areas.” Citing the example of one stretch in CDP project, Chopra said, “On National Highway- 125, 102 out of 174 fresh cut slopes were found to be landslide prone. Total 44 slope failures had taken place by mid-December 2019. Similar situation prevails on all the Char Dham highways.
Many of the landslide prone locations identified by the HPC have turned out to be weak and collapsed repeatedly.” The final report of the HPC, set up in August 2019, submitted to various Union ministries and the Supreme Court last year points out lack of efforts to minimise the loss of forests and green cover, amplifying the factors contributing in landslides. The report says about 700 hectares of forests have been lost, involving felling of over 47,000 trees, in Char Dham Project alone. State government authorities, however, have a different explanation for the rising incidents of landslide. Piyoosh Rautela, executive director, Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, said, “Disaster reporting has increased in recent times due to increased awareness, infrastructure and robust surveillance.
Hundreds of kilometers of road infrastructure are added every year. Data indicating more landslides does not necessarily mean that incidents have increased.” Chopra, in a letter to the apex court after the February 7 flash floods in Chamoli district, pointed out that there were 161 “chronic landslideprone locations and stretches” falling in the CDP route. “We have been saying that hydroelectric projects should not be located in para-glacial zones. We had submitted a report recommending this in 2014 but it was not followed. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways data itself speaks about landslide prone spots at almost every 3-3.5kms in the CDP,” he told this newspaper.
Similar is the story of Himachal, where too deforestation, slope cutting, tunneling, damming of rivers, excessive tourism and widening of roads have made the hills unstable. “The fragility of the Himalayan region due to its topography, climatic conditions and ecology is already well documented and so is the disaster proneness of the region. Over the past few decades, the climate crisis has further exacerbated the frequency and intensity of these disasters,” said environmentalist Manshi Asher, adding that the developmental model pushed by various government was the most critical factor in the rise. “The State Disaster Management Authority report on Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment 2015 already indicates that 90 per cent of the state is in high-risk zone.
Areas like Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti are particularly sensitive. Yet, the focus of policymakers remains on ‘management’ rather than early warning and ‘prevention’,” she said, adding that governments continue pushing for more hydropower projects and four-lane highways. The 2015 report suggested certain engineering measures for construction of roads, power projects and other development works to avert mishaps, but it has been given a quite burial. Despite the irreversible damage already done, experts do have suggestions to mitigate further destruction.
Geologist and landslide expert AK Mahajan lists unscientific road-widening as a major contributing factor to landslides, apart from geographical reasons like “fragile lithology”. Dr S S Randhawa, Principal Scientific Officer, Himachal Pradesh Council for Science Technology and Environment, said, “Detailed geological investigations in terms of rock types, major thrust is very important to understand any unwanted changes in the mountains before doing any developmental works because these things may aggravate the problems if the prior understanding of the area is not taken care of.” But the question is whether the governments are prepared to listen to the experts.
Studies underline vulnerability of Uttarakhand hill stations
Last year, a study by Dehradun-based Centre for Ecology Development and Research, IIT-Roorkee and Forest Research Institute-Dehradun stated that rapid urbanisation and anthropogenic activities such as construction of roads, parking areas, hotels, schools and recreational sites, has contributed to an increment of the built-up area, making the hill station of Nainital susceptible to landslides. Another study carried out last year by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, said that 15 per cent of area in and around Mussoorie is “highly susceptible” to landslides.