Accountability need of the hour for ecological destruction in Himalayas
Dehradun, Nov 27
While the national and international focus has been on the operations to rescue 41 labourers stranded in the Silkyara under construction road tunnel in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand for the past 16 days, however, the pertinent question is about fixing the accountability for the ecological destruction in the Himalayas.
Following the stoppage of horizontal drilling in the debris due to collapse of American Augur machine, the vertical drilling above the tunnel is being undertaken. More than 30 meters of vertical drilling has already been done as per officials. Manual digging would be done horizontally to reach out to the trapped workers.
The magnitude of death and destruction caused by disasters both natural and man-made in the mid-Himalayan region particularly the Kedarnath and Himachal Pradesh deluge in the years 2013 and 2023 respectively, points towards an alarming rise in human interference in fragile mountain eco-system that happens to fall in seismically active zone.
The death of more than 200 workers of the two hydro-electric projects namely Rishiganga and Tapovan Vishnugad in February 2021 who were buried under debris following flash floods was a grim reminder of the increasing pressure of developmental needs of the people and the fragility of the Himalayan mountains.
The Silkyara road tunnel was part of the Char Dham road project approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs chaired by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018. The approval was given for construction of 4.531 km long 2-Lane Bi-Directional Silkyara Bend – Barkot Tunnel with escape passage including approaches on Dharasu -Yamunotri section. But during the present disaster, the escape passage was nowhere to be seen. How this crucial aspect remained ignored. Will there be any action against Navyug Enterprises, the company constructing the tunnel?
Interestingly, a Supreme Court appointed committee had recommended against the widening of the proposed ‘All Weather Char Dham Road’ to 12 meters and suggested only up to 5.5 meters of width of the road. The opinion of the scientific experts was ignored and the central government went to the Apex court arguing that it was necessary for security purposes. More interestingly, the government circumvented its’ own environmental laws in a bid to hurry up the project which was billed as a major achievement of the present central government towards enhancing accessibility to Hindu pilgrimage centres.
The central government in order to evade the necessary detailed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) required for the more than 900 kilometer long project divided the entire project into 53 project of less than 100 kilometers. Ideally for any large infrastructure project involving cutting and tunnelling through mountains, detailed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is required. But it was not done despite protests by local residents including those close to Silkyara tunnel. Whom we are cheating?
Dr Ravi Chopra, chairman of the high powered Committee appointed by Supreme Court to monitor the road project had recommended that the road should be five and half meters wide as compared to 12 meters proposed. He cited reasons of large scale destruction of trees, flora and fauna and fragility of mountain slopes. However, the Union government argued in the court that due to national security reasons the road bordering china should be of atleast ten meters width of black top. The committee having 24 members was split with 21 members agreeing to the government view with only three including Dr Ravi Chopra opposing the move. All the member scientists of prestigious government scientific institutions on the committee sided with the government. The SC Chief Justice Justice D.Y. Chandrachud clearing the road project in October 2021 had said that it had struck a balance between the requirement of widening strategic road crucial to national security and deep rooted sustainable development principle crucial to environment.
The Himalayas are the youngest, tallest and the most fragile mountain ranges in the world which are still in the making. However, the pace of rapid development in the shape of roads, hydro-electric projects and railway network has disturbed the fragility of the Himalayas.
Landslides, earthquakes, avalanches and floods are frequently taking places in the Himalayan region. To compound the problem, there is a marked lack of proper scientific studies on the impact of all these activities. Interestingly, the recommendations of expert committees formed after such natural disasters or Supreme Court ordered do not find favour with the centre and the state governments.
After the Kedarnath tragedy in which more than 5000 people perished, an expert committee headed by eminent scientist Dr Ravi Chopra recommended that all the Hydro-electric project above 2000 meters should be halted citing increasing threats of landslides, cloudburst and flash floods. The committee also recommended detailed study of impact of the hydro-electric project in terms of deforestation/tunneling/blasting reservoir formation of hydrology of the area but nothing was done. The Supreme Court also halted permission to 23 hydro-electric projects in the state.
Interestingly, the people of Reini village, the epi-centre of the 1970 Chipko movement where Rishiganga power project was the first to be hit by the flash flood in February 2021, had moved the Nainital high court in 2018 against dangers to the eco-system of the area caused by the blasting being carried out by the project authorities. The state government instead of acting firmly tried to push the issue under the carpet.
Even before the Kedarnath tragedy in 2013, eminent environmentalist Prof G.D. Aggarwal alias Swami Sanad who had been fighting against bigger hydro-electric projects in Himalayas particularly on river Ganga since 2008 had to sacrifice his life while undertaking fast unto death in support of his demand. He had forced the state government in 2008 to abandon Pala Maneri and Bhaironghati hydro-electric project. He again started his fast in June 2018 in support of his demand of uninterrupted flow of river Ganga and died in October 2018.
The problem of landslides and cloudbursts normally occur in the monsoon period but the floods in Rishi Ganga during peak winter season in February 2021 pointed towards the fragility of the eco-system and need to understand the scientific phenomenon behind such occurrences.
Geologists say that seismic movements are constantly taking place in the Himalayas. On an average, nearly 200 earthquakes of smaller magnitudes occur every year in the Uttaranchal region alone. Most of these are undetected by local communities.
The seismic activities lead to landslides. Thousands of landslides of medium to large dimensions have been occurring in the Himalayas every year. But they become noticeable only when accompanied by death of human beings and destruction of property.
Another major developmental project is the Rishikesh-Karanprayag railway project which requires lot of tunneling and interference with the slopes of the fragile mountains. The government propose to extend extend the railway line further to connect all four dhams. The ongoing 126 kilometers long railway project has 102 kilometers line in the tunnels. Many of the villagers enroute the railway line have alleged damage to their homes, agricultural fields and water resources due to tunneling work.
A major part of the Himalayas, particularly in Uttarakhand, usually receive heavy monsoon showers and also some rain in the winter months. The uncontrolled, downhill flow of water after heavy rains, particularly along barren slopes, remain one of the major causative factor of landslides.
Apart from geological factors, changes in the land-use pattern in the mountains has also led to the increase in the frequency and magnitude of landslides. Most of the roads are carved out on the banks of the river valleys and towns are situated on these roads. Every monsoon during floods most of these roads are washed away disrupting the road communications.
The most obvious of these changes has been the rapid destruction of forests which has left large tracts in the entire Himalayas region with denuded slopes.
The destruction of forests and the vegetative cover that binds the top soil has been going on at an ever-increasing pace because of various developmental activities in the region, including the expansion of the road network, construction of a large number of hydro-electric projects, underground tunnels, the establishment of new townships and the expansion of the existing ones and the conversion of forest land into agricultural and horticulture holdings.
Similarly, 30,000 to 40,000 cubic meters of soil is excavated in carving out 1 km of road in the Himalayas – a figure that eloquently reveals the extent of damage done to the local ecology.
To make matters worse, most roads are built without proper surveys. These invariably cause new landslides or reactivate old ones.
Sadly, no holistic approach is being evolved for developmental process in the hills to measure the geological fallout of the developmental and construction activities despite the fact that each hill district has a government geologist to advise the administration.
The Joshimath disaster in January 2023 pointed towards the dangers of unbridled urbanization in the fragile Himalayan region. Unchecked urbanisation has also done its bit in making the region more unstable. Changes in the architecture of the houses in the hills – the increasing use of brick and concrete instead of the traditional mud and wood – has resulted in higher casualty figures when disasters strike.
The country needs a separate institution dealing with mountain hazards in general and landslides in particular. Despite hue and cry raised by the scientific community, the proposed centre for landslides study and control is yet to come up.
The National Disaster Management Authority has claimed that the Ministry of Mines will set up a Centre for Landslides Research, Studies and Management in a landslide-prone state to deal with the problem in a comprehensive manner.
Proper geological and geo-technical survey is vital before launching any developmental project in the hills, including the preparation of landslide-hazard zonation maps, so that prior knowledge about the status of the area to be undertaken for development is available.
True, landslides can also occur anywhere at any time, but unlike earthquakes, their occurrence can be predicted and planned for. The tragedy is that despite a wealth of data and numerous experts in the field, there is very little being done on the ground in this regard.