Shimla on shaky ground, caution structural experts
Recent landslides in Himachal Pradesh capital show geological factors, including soil stability, water flow patterns, and terrain characteristics, must be considered when drawing up urban development plans
A troubling trend has emerged in Shimla after last week’s rain-triggered landslides showed how vulnerable settlements along streams and water bodies have become. Experts say the belief that reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structures can offer resilience and strength is proving to be a fallacy as recent incidents have exposed the vulnerability of these constructions, particularly those built along water bodies, springs or on blocked culverts.
Residents of Krishnanagar in Shimla have been forced to abandon their houses, while people in settlements in the vicinity of St Edwards school find themselves in a precarious situation. In neighbouring Solan district also, the once-thriving village of Shamti has become synonymous with tragedy as RCC structures built on streams have given way during this monsoon.
The experts say these incidents underscore the need for a paradigm shift in land use and urban planning. They warn that relying solely on traditional approaches while drafting master plans, also known as development plans, is no longer tenable. A geological-based approach is required instead.
“Geological factors, including soil stability, water flow patterns, and terrain characteristics, must be considered when crafting urban development plans. Governments and local authorities must collaborate with geological experts to create sustainable urban spaces,” says SS Randhawa, the principal scientific officer of the Himachal Pradesh Council for Science, Technology and Environment (HIMCOSTE), who has been appointed coordinator of the committee constituted to study landslide causes in Shimla.
The lure of building structures near water bodies needs to be tempered by a comprehensive understanding of geological dynamics, he said, adding that ill-informed construction practices could endanger lives and property.
So far, people have been buying land without studying the strata. Most of the buildings that were swept away in the recent landslide in the state capital were built on the path of nullah. Former deputy mayor of Shimla, Tikender Panwar, has been demanding an inquiry into last week’s landslides by a Supreme Court judge as he claimed that the structures were built by vested interest despite the site being rejected eight times given its vulnerable location.
Structural experts agree that several sites are unsuitable for construction. “There is need to check the sewage disposal infrastructure, too. Shimla consumes 42 MLD (million litre a day) of water but only 15% of it reaches the tank. Where does the rest of it go?” says Rakesh Sharma, a retired engineer in chief of the state’s Jal Shakti department.
Shimla has been growing rapidly. Ribbon development along highways and smaller roads has become a common feature. Besides the congested city localities, the fringe areas, particularly prominent ridges of Sanjauli, Cemetery, Dhalli, Bhattakufar, Mehli, Kangnadhar, Khalini, and Bharari, are seeing unplanned growth. “People are building houses with cheap construction material, making these structures even more vulnerable,” says the town’s chief architect Rajiv Sharma.