Landslide Himachal

Himachal Pradesh is a small state with a population of only about seven million people.  Hence it should be particularly worrying that at the end  of the monsoon season this year floods ( particularly flash floods), landslides and heavy rains are officially estimated to have led to a loss of as many as 461 lives, with 13 people missing.  The loss to public property has been estimated at Rs. 1161 crore or Rs.11610 million. It is more difficult to estimate the precise number of people or households whose life has been devastated by such disasters, but given the frequency with which such cases have been reported this is likely to be have been very high.

In fact the loss of lives would have been higher but for the fact that alert citizens as well as fortunate circumstances averted some big tragedies. One such case related to collapse of a vast stretch of an important road. Although this road is in Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh, it is also close to this state’s border with two other states (Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh) and also close to a famous pilgrimage site and hence attracted wider attention. On July 30 morning as much as  150 metre stretch of highway 707 in Kali Dhanak area near Paonta Sahib caved in and it was only good fortune and timely warnings given by villagers which saved the badly threatened life of over 150 commuters and passers-by. What could have been a big national tragedy in terms of loss of precious human lives was barely averted. However attention was nevertheless focused on how such a long stretch of road and hills above could crumble so swiftly, taking along electricity poles and water-pipes.

Soon it was revealed that this had been  a site of limestone mining where heavy machinery was used in a highly destructive way, leading to instability and weakening of hills. A geologist Suresh Bhardwaj who being based in Sirmaur and is very familiar with local conditions was quoted in the Tribune as stating ( report by Ambika Sharma, August 1), “A limestone mine was operational at the base of the valley till about two years ago where the use of hydraulic machinery could have weakened the hill. The problem was aggravated by the presence of clay shales whose cutting for limestone mining disturbed its surface and seepage of excess water during the rains triggered the landslide.”

The same report quoted local villagers as stating that the company working on highway widening had been dumping tons of debris along natural water drainages , contributing to such a disaster by blocking natural water flow and also harming villagers by pushing water towards agricultural fields, destroying water mills and triggering other smaller landslides as well.

On the same day newspapers of Himachal Pradesh quoted official data that 378 roads in the small state were blocked at this time, mainly by landslides, and emergency steps to rescue many stranded tourists were in progress. Earlier several migrant workers had to be rescued.

In addition several settlements have been badly endangered and steps for rehabilitation are being taken or else appeals for this are pending. The number of adversely affected people has been huge, and hardly a day passed during this monsoon season without news media reporting someone or the other who was distressed by a combination of adverse weather and high vulnerability .

In many of these landslides and floods, not just in Himachal Pradesh but in other neighboring states and regions as well, the role of man-made factors including indiscriminate mining and construction activities, blasting work, neglect of construction norms and precautions, hydro projects, diversion of rivers and deposition of rubble in them, tree-felling and reduction of green cover have been mentioned as important man-made factors and triggers.

Climate change is of course a very important factor leading to more concentrated and torrential rain. This is the wider man-made factor but this should not be used to deny the very important role of several local man-made factors as immediate solutions are likely to emerge more at this level.

More and more evidence of these man-made factors is becoming available, but policy is not responding to this evidence. In fact sometimes we read about some ill-conceived projects contributing to these avoidable disasters in newspapers, and alongside we have reports of more such projects being launched. The system somehow absorbs this criticism, without responding in terms of the policy changes indicated by this evidence.

If the authorities care to examine all such incidents carefully and bring together all the evidence, this is likely to amount to a strong indictment of the failure to correct proven and avoidable mistakes. The efforts to correct such  mistakes must increase at all levels, as the high costs of such mistakes are becoming increasingly more difficult to bear. The need is not just for specific efforts like those to be taken in landslide-prone zones, but more broadly also for overall more ecologically protective policy. More and more livelihoods should be promoted in ecologically protective activities and not in destructive ones.

It is important to note that drinking water shortages continued to be reported even in monsoon months. There have been reported cases of small water sources being ravaged for sand and gravel mining. Rivers which are supposed to be the source for ambitious drinking and domestic  water schemes in bigger cities are also being ravaged by ecologically destructive activities at the same time.

Such concerns are very high in ecologically highly sensitive areas like Kinnaur and Lahul-Spiti. Big infrastructure and hydel projects are being used to showcase development here without bothering about their impact on fragile ecology. However it is encouraging to know that in such threatened areas more people are now coming forward to demand corrective actions.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril.

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