Char Dham Road begins extracting ecological costs: 25 landslides this season
The all-weather Char Dham road in Uttarakhand has witnessed 25 major landslides this rainy season, forcing the administration to close two stretches of roads in Tehri Garwhal for indefinite periods and indicating that “unscientific” road construction was causing huge damage to the fragile local ecology.
The ₹12,000 crore Char Dham road project was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 to connect Hindu shrines of Gangotri, Yamnotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath through a four lane all-weather road. The project had the ancillary benefit of facilitating rapid movement of Indian military forces to areas adjoining its border with China.
The project was to be originally completed in three years and its new deadline is December 2021. So far, 530km of the 825 km Char Dham road have been constructed, on 12 metre hill cutting width, said officials from road transport ministry. But in five years of Char Dham road construction, there have been at least 200 landslides and death of close to 200 people due to construction work or landslides, activists claimed.
Videos of landslides in Bandarkot in Uttarkashi district, Gangotri highway and Devprayag have gone viral this monsoon, showing that the construction may not have taken into account the fragile ecology of a young mountain range. Several other videos of minor landslides on the Char Dham project have been put on the social media to show fragility of the newly built highway.
Such was the magnitude of the landslides that National Highway-125 (109A) at Swala in Champawat district has been closed for the past eight days, and Tota Ghati in Rishikesh-Srinagar stretch of the all-weather road has been closed indefinitely due to debris and boulders falling from mountains. In March, Tota Ghati was closed for 11 hours every day to cut the slope with heavy machinery for widening of the existing road. In August, the newly constructed road caved in due to pressure from the landslide slipping from top of the hill.
On August 27, Tehri Garhwal district magistrate closed National Highway-58 between Tapovan and Maletha and National Highway 94 between Narendra Nagar and Chamba till the situation normalises as these stretches have been hit by incessant landslides. “It means that these roads would open only after monsoon,” an official said.
These are just a few examples of the landslides that have happened in 2021. But the hills came down crashing on the road, which road transport minister Nitin Gadkari said in 2015 would be “technologically most sound” when the state received 4% less than normal rainfall till August 31 as compared to average rainfall in the past 10 years.
Closure of 215 roads
VS Khaira, chief engineer at the regional office of the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) in Uttarakhand and project in-charge of the Char Dham Road project, admitted that 20-25 major landslides have been reported this year.
“These landslides happened at places where work is going on. Apart from this, there have been minor landslides also where roads got blocked due to debris falling from the mountain and were cleared within a few hours,” he said.
In other parts of Uttarakhand, according to the Public Works Department, 215 roads across the state were closed as of Monday this week, with the maximum roads being blocked in Pauri Garhwal (71), Tehri (46) and Chamoli (23).
An official working with National Highway Authority of India on the Chardham project said landslides are nothing unusual when the road-cutting happens.
“Riverbed sand mining is a major cause for landslide. Wherever major landslides are reported, we develop treatment strategy depending on local geology (type of rocks, soil, angle of slope),” the official quoted above explained. He added that at present the treatment process is being carried out at Tharasu between Srinagar and Rudraprayag and at Saknidhar and Devaprayag.
Dismissing the claim, Navin Juyal, a geologist who was also a part of the expert committee and member of high-powered committee (HPC) formed in 2019 to review the environmental impact of Char Dham all-weather road project, said that instability due to riverbed mining can happen in downstream areas, especially on infrastructure standing on the riverbed but cannot cause landslides.
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“Riverbed mining removes the natural sediment cover which protects the foundation, and this can affect the infrastructure built on that riverbed as the foundation is exposed to the vagaries of flood. Sand mining can create riverbank collapsing in downstream areas, but it will not generate landslides in the Himalayas. Those landslides are due to instability of slope caused by vertical hill cutting without understanding the geology of that area,” said Juyal.
The judiciary-executive tussle
The Supreme Court in 2019 had appointed an expert panel to examine the impact of road cutting on the local ecology and the steps needed to be taken to minimise the adverse environmental impact. The committee was also to assess the environmental damages of Char Dham road as the construction work was done without proper prior environmental appraisal and assessment.
The committee, in its final report to the apex court, identified over 150 landslide prone stretches just in the Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch of the Char Dham road. Several landslides have been reported on these stretches this monsoon season, officials said. The Border Roads Organisation had also identified 11 critical locations where the slopes have become landslide-prone because of poor road cutting, the report said.
The report said the landslide prone areas can be minimised if the road width is reduced. In July last year, a report of the minority group led by head of the panel, Ravi Chopra, recommended an 8m total road width (including intermediate road, pedestrian path and space for drainage) against the view of 12m road width, submitted by the majority group.
The report submitted to the SC by the chairperson of the committee in July mentioned a list of adverse environmental and social life consequences if the road is built with a width of 12m against 8m. The apex court in September 2020 said the width of the Char Dham highway shall not exceed the 5.5 metres as specified in 2018 MoRTH for roads under construction in mountainous terrain.
The ministry opposed the SC order and said it would result in high cost as several stretches have been widened to have 12 meter wide road. The implementing agencies, including the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), Uttarkhand PWD and NHIDCL, continued with building wider road on several stretches after a revised road width order was issued by the highway authority in January 2021 citing strategic locations on India-China border. “Most of the road is being built with wider width as SC is yet to give its view on the latest NHAI order,” an official said.
Did expedited road construction trigger landslides?
Many in Uttarakhand believe that there has been a sudden spurt in landslides this year as the government is keen to complete most part of the project before 2022 assembly elections, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking re-election.
Mallika Bhanot, an Uttarakhand-based environment activist, said that most contractors are saying that there is a push from the “top” to complete most of the work before December this year. “That was the reason for road cutting to continue even during rains, a cause of many landslides,” she said. Juyal said poor slope management at particular stretches where landslides are being reported frequently is a reason for high intensity landslides.
“Gabion structures, where rocks are tied together in hexagonal meshes to keep them together, which have been made on several stretches of the Char Dham all weather road can work to a certain extent; they are not a permanent solution. The implementing agencies should form catch drainage, so that rainwater does not go inside the rocks and can flow into these drains, which have not been made. Forming an all-weather road is not a problem, if this road was made following all environmental norms, then these incidents could have been managed,” Juyal said.
Bhanot said that since the construction of Char Dham all-weather road started in an unscientific manner, landslides have increased massively. “Our data shows that over 200 major landslides have happened on under construction portions of the highway in the past six years. We can point out from news reports that at least 200 people have died in accidents due to landslides or poor road management since the project started. Every monsoon, the highway is blocked with debris, which goes against the original idea of all weather road,” she said.
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