Road-widening activity is triggering hazardous landslides in Uttarakhand. RAKESH AGARWAL writes of the need for a disaster management plan in this centre of pilgrimage.
Locking horns with Nature ... a catastrophe is just waiting to happen.
RECENTLY, disaster struck near Hem Kund Sahib, one of the most revered shrines of the Sikh community, and a stone's throw from the world famous nature reserve, the Valley of Flowers, in Uttarakhand.
Nature does not discriminate between the earthly dwellings of mortals and heavenly abodes of gods, and brought death to a group of pilgrims while they were just a few kilometres away from Govind Ghat from where they would start the 14-mile long trek. Alas, they could not climb this stairway to heaven as debris came down from a mountain slope near Marwari Bridge located between Joshi Math and Vishnu Prayag. And it caused disaster here, a usual phenomenon in the hills.
This is when the monsoon is at its peak, and the pilgrimage season at its height as winter is just around the corner. People are left with only a few days to visit the hills before most trek routes become inaccessible. Little wonder then that roads are blocked. Road widening work is on too.
This disaster was the result of a "cloudburst" causing a portion of the mountainside to give way. (it was already weakened by the ongoing road widening process.) Falling rocks hit a bus which then tumbled into the Alaknanda, killing 12 persons, including four women and four children. However, death's dance was not over yet. A truck followed the bus and as many as 18 of 30 passengers were killed.
The newly established Centre of Disaster Mitigation and Response (CDMR), an independent unit of Peoples' Science Institute (PSI), swung into action.
Most people the team spoke to, felt that the road widening exercise that aims to make this National Highway (NH) 58 a four-lane highway, is a dangerous game; and poses a threat to the fragile environment of the Himalayas. A "cloud burst" had hit Lambagar, a village some 15 km before Badrinath, earlier, activating a rivulet, Daya Nalah, as the debris, thanks to the road widening exercise, blocked the road. Next day, a bulldozer was clearing this stretch of the highway, when disaster struck again. This time, it proved fatal.
The CDMR team was clear that it had to study the causes of the disaster and create an awareness so that death and destruction are not repeated.
The team came to a perturbing conclusion. A major and active landslide threatens life and traffic movement almost every 20 km on an average along the Rishikesh-Badrinath NH-58. In the 180-mile long stretch from Rishikesh to Lambagar, the team identified 16 major active landslide zones that can paralyse traffic and life during the monsoon. These are at Shivpuri, Byasi, Kaudiyala, Suyalikhal, Teendhara, Kaliasaur, Nandprayag, Langasu, Pipalkoti, Tangani, Helang, 1 km downstream of Vishnuprayag, Vishnuprayag, 1 km upstream of Vishnuprayag, Govindghat, and Lambagar (Daya Nalah). The disaster talked about in paragraph one was at Daya Nalah.
In addition to these major hazards, there are dozens of rockslides that occur on this highway everyday. While these are not as striking as the big landslides, they also pose a threat to road safety. Like a killer ball, a fist sized rock rolling down a few hundred feet from a mountain slope can smash the roof of a vehicle or even kill a person who is struck by it.
This year, landslides causing major havoc have been occurring at frequent intervals in Uttarakhand. The monsoon has been active for just little over a month and so far, more that 20 big disasters have struck the hills, including all the four dhams Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
Locals also made it clear to the team that the government does not take any measures in mitigating these hazards. Rather, even the responses to such disasters are also poor.
More landslides inevitable
After talking to several people who live in the villages and towns along NH-58, the team concluded that large sections of the highway have been weakened by the road widening process that began last year. The process of blasting rocks along the mountain sides during the road widening creates fissures in the slopes and weakens them. Therefore, the frequency of landslides will increase. To avoid this, appropriate treatment of such unstable slopes is a must.
The team also noticed the presence of a thick glacio-fluvial material deposited over the rock in the higher Himalayan region. This overburden becomes unstable when a road is cut through it. The loose debris lying along the major rivulets is also susceptible to debris flows during heavy rains and needs to be channeled and controlled in a systematic way.
A case for technology
Since most hazards and risks in this Himalayan State could be potential hazards, they could be mapped and assessed in advance using available knowledge of science and technology. Thanks to unscientific developmental activities, the instances and severity of landslides are going to increase. A need is felt to help people cope with these disasters.
To help the government and people, the CDMR is now working on a disaster management plan for the Akashgamini, Kusum and Kunja Gads valleys that include 54 villages of Rudraprayag district. The unit has prepared a data-sheet format for keeping the records of landslides in the State and is working towards developing a people's methodology for preliminary hazard identification and assessment by the villagers themselves. The unit has already formed the taskforces for these villages and is undertaking awareness and training programmes in this area.
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