Recent Himalayan Highway Work Needs Unbiased Assessment of Costs and Benefits

himalaya highway

Recent floods have caused very heavy damage to roads and highways in Himachal Pradesh. After a rapid assessment a fund of Rs. 400 crore was announced on August 1 by the Central government for repair of roads and highways in this state.

While rains and floods were severe in several places, there is also a lot of concern regarding the extent to which the road-construction and widening processes themselves have led to the crumbling of the surrounding hillsides. Indiscriminate construction practices such as vertical cutting were followed. A lot of damage has been caused by the muck generated in the process of highway construction or widening which was not disposed of properly.

With too many landslides throwing boulders on roads, travel became very hazardous and in addition some highways were blocked for long periods. The widening of highways which it was promised would make the journey so comfortable and quick was seen to be having entirely different impacts as stranded passengers had nightmarish experiences. When commuters had to pay toll tax while travelling on such risky highways, they were very upset.

Two recent reports on the Kalka-Shimla highway (or the stretch of it called Parwanoo-Solan highway) reveal the existing situation and the response to this.

The Statesman reported on August 7, “ The Kalka Shimla Highway NH-5 remained closed for the fourth consecutive day on Saturday August 5, after which the toll plaza Sanwara was closed with immediate effect…The NH-5 had been damaged at multiple locations between Solan to Parwanoo due to recent heavy rainfall and completely blocked at Kotio since 2 August.”

The leading Hindi newspaper of this region Amar Ujala reported on August 2, “The Chief minister Mr. Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has stated that the Parwanoo-Solan Highway would be reconstructed anew ( nirman naye sire se kiya jaayega).” More specifically he said that this will involve the construction of several more tunnels. He said that he had discussed this with the Union Minister for Transport, Roads and Highways Mr. Nitin Gadkari.

It is strange that after the entire recent experience the main lesson learnt appears to be that of constructing more tunnels. It would be much more useful and relevant if instead a very honest appraisal is made of the real impacts of the widening of this important highway. Many buildings were demolished and many small scale shopkeepers were evicted. A very large number of trees were cut destabilizing the slopes. Landslides have been much higher after the construction work on this highway. While commuters see what is visible on the highway, there have been many more reports of harm in the nearby villages and localities.

Instead of just announcing construction of many more tunnels as a corrective step, what should be done is to carry out a very unbiased survey of what has happened as a result of the highway widening work on the stability of the geologically fragile ad ecologically sensitive region, on landslides as seen on roads and most of all in the various rural and urban settlements on both sides of the road. This is important to understand the real costs and benefits of the entire project. Any further decisions should be taken only after forming a comprehensive understanding on the basis of this survey. In the course of this survey the views of local people regarding how the harm that has been seen here can be minimized should also be obtained.

The results of the survey together with all the cumulative costs of this prolonged project, the total number of trees felled and details of muck disposal should be placed before the people, so that a proper evaluation of the costs and benefits can be made. This should be seen as a learning exercise for future work.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071.


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