Himachal — “Planning” For More Disasters ?

As I write this on the 9th of August the famed Kullu- Manali National Highway has been closed since the 11th of July, and the much hyped Parwanoo- Solan one has also been shut down since the 2nd of August, with no prospect of it being reopened in its original form for quite a few weeks. The Manali (right bank) highway might take months, if not years, to restore. The Pathankot- Mandi highway is also blocked. The mountains, and their rivers, have shown who is the boss in these terrains.

Everyone is (naturally) blaming the rains, but the real villains are our policy makers-politicians and bureaucrats- and the engineers of the NHAI and PWD. The former have for years been ignoring the pleas of environmentalists and locals to stop this reckless road and dam building, and the latter have either given short shrift to basic engineering principles or a long rope to their contractors for reasons which are obvious. In the process not only have thousands of crores of tax-payers’ money gone down the khad, literally, but hundreds of private houses, buildings and cars have been either washed away or damaged, and dozens of lives lost.

The state PWD Minister, Mr. Vikramaditya Singh, has written a piece in THE TRIBUNE on the 4th of August in which he has asked for a paradigm shift in road planning and construction in the Himalayas (without actually calling for a halt to this epidemic of four-laning which has swept the state of late). He has stressed on criminal accountability for the lapses which have resulted in 500+ roads being damaged/ destroyed in the recent rains, causing a loss of Rs. 5000 crores to the state, which cannot even pay DA instalments to its employees and pensioners on time. Is this a mea culpa moment for him, or is he simply passing the buck to others, mainly his predecessors? For the fact is that any accountability must begin with the politicians and policy makers of the state who have been sanctioning and funding road projects on a scale which would impress even Mr. Gadkari, without any concern for geology, engineering principles, the need for so many roads(especially the four lane monstrosities), the interests of ecology or the welfare of local residents.

A Himachal Roadways (HRTC) bus on its way from Sundernagar to Shimla on Saturday (12.8.23) lands in a ditch after the road underneath caved in leaving 13 passengers injured.

The evidence of cupidity, stupidity and worse is now beginning to pile up faster than the silt in the Gobindsagar reservoir. The Chief Minister himself has claimed that it was the faulty four-laning of the Mandi-Kullu road which has resulted in the flooding of the Larji HEP, stoppage of generation of power for months: he has demanded compensation of Rs. 650 crores from the NHAI. It now emerges that while four-laning this stretch the NHAI intruded 4 metres into the riverbed of the Beas! A criminal case of negligence and corruption has been filed against the NHAI and its contractor for the collapse of the Parwanoo- Solan highway. The High Court has taken cognizance of the unscientific cutting of hills for road construction and has summoned the Attorney General of India to offer some explanations. The NHAI Director has admitted that they have made many mistakes as they had no previous experience of building in the Himalayas, and that this has been a “learning experience” for them. I wonder if this provides any solace to the thousands who have paid the price for being treated as guinea pigs by incompetent engineers with degrees from dubious institutes.

Himachal’s best known environmental NGO, the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, has written to the President of India protesting this kind of “development” and demanding a high powered committee to probe the causes for the multiple disasters. It has maintained that hydel projects and road construction, with their consequential deforestation, weakening of the mountain strata, silting of rivers and raising of river beds, are the main reasons for the damage. The destruction in Pandoh and lower Mandi, the market at Sainj, the village of Kasol are now proved to have been caused by the sudden and belated discharge of waters from the Larji, Parbati III projects and the Pandoh Dam. Thousands of trees and sleepers carried by the flood waters reveal that large scale and illicit felling of trees has been taking place under the cover of these projects- more than 1000 trees have been retrieved from just the Pong dam reservoir!

One would have expected the state government, NHAI and other policy makers to have taken a step back from these “learning experiences”, pause these projects and review the disastrous direction in which they they have been taking the state so far. Only one Minister so far, Shri Harsh Vardhan, Industries Minister, has issued a statement on 9th August asserting that four laning of roads is not suitable for the mountains. This is heartening, but the government as a whole appears to have doubled down on its mistakes and seems intent on repeating them even more aggressively.

The Chief Minister has announced that, to bypass the sliding mountainside on the Parwanoo- Dharampur stretch, the NHAI will now bore tunnels into the mountains. Is he serious or does he have a macabre sense of humour? Having devastated the mountains from the outside he now proposes to disembowel them from the inside, making matters worse and generating more millions of tonnes of muck to choke the rivers and water courses? Doesn’t the obvious occur to him and his team of advisors- stabilise the sliding portions of the highway, stop cutting into the hillside any further, restrict this stretch of the road to just the original two lanes. This applies to all damaged portions of all four lane highways, including the almost obliterated Kullu- Manali road. Instead, reports and visuals now indicate that the NHAI has begun “restoring” the Kullu- Manali highway by repeating its earlier mistakes- dumping more earth and rocks on the river bed in the classic “cut and fill” method to restore the damaged portions !

Even more mind boggling was the announcement by the Deputy Chief Minister on the 8th of August that the government has prepared a DPR for channelising the Beas river along its entire length from Palchan (above Manali) to Kullu, a linear distance of about 30 kms. He has sought Rs. 1650 crores from the Centre for the purpose. This is the best indication that the government has learnt nothing from the recent (and earlier disasters) and is hell-bent on inflicting even greater environmental calamity on the state just to keep some voters happy. The Dy CM should know that the Beas is no tame waterway like the Gomti in Lucknow or the Sabarmati in Gujarat; it is a mountain river, a torrent that roars down thousands of feet with a velocity that carries thousands of tonnes of silt, rocks and boulders that obliterates every thing in its path. The river is erratic, rises and falls abruptly with the rains in its catchment area. It cannot be channelised: the sheer force of the waters will erode the embankments in no time (as it did with the four laning), the detritus it carries, unable to spread out, will raise the river bed in the channel and reduce its capacity, leading to even more flooding inevitably.

Furthermore, any hare brained channelisation scheme completely ignores the portents of climate change and the increasing EWEs (Extreme Weather Events). Here is just one statistic to prove this point: according to official data the rainfall in Kullu district this year between 7th to 11th July was 280.1 mm against the norm of 30.7 mm- an excess of 812%, the highest in the state. (The state average, incidentally, was 436%). During this same period the Beas rose even higher than its historical HFL ( High Flood Level) which, I learn, was recorded in the 1950s. No channelisation can adequately provide for such fluctuations (which are bound to increase with global warming); moreover, by constricting the natural flow of the river, the channel will further raise the level of the waters to even more dangerous levels. It is no coincidence that the left bank road between Manali and Kullu, which was spared the attention of the NHAI and not widened, still functions with only minor damage. Surely there’s a lesson here staring us in the face ?

Why can’t the government accept the changing realities and learn to live with this river instead of trying to tame it with the inadequate forces of obsolete engineering? Allow the rivers of the state to flow in their natural channels, stop the encroachments on their flood plains by prohibiting any construction upto HFL and completely banning any mining activity in them, stop throwing muck into the rivers, stop obstructing the rivers by building dams. These dams have become lethal weapons as we have seen year after year in Uttarakhand and Himachal, and as has been predicted by any number of expert committees and environmentalists. Their destructive power will only be amplified with the EWEs which are gradually becoming the norm. It is time to also review their protocols and SOPs for release of waters: the discharge should be dictated by considerations of safety of people and property downstream, not by calculations of profit and units generated.

Right now, unfortunately, every politician, bureaucrat and engineer is using climate change as an excuse to deflect their mistakes and to avoid accountability; it should instead be used as a trigger to change their mindsets, policies and templates of development. They don’t have much time left.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Pragya

    Its very sad to see the apathy of the system and no concern for the environment or for that matter the people… but its good you write about it.. im sure there are still sensible & competent people in the govt. sector who will find some solution to the never ending problem of landslides & flooding & the general public also wakes up to the fact that environmental issues are a real thing..

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