New landslide zones activated on Char Dham road: Experts
New landslide zones have been activated in the ecologically-sensitive areas in Uttarakhand since work began on the construction of the 900km Char Dham road four years ago for all-weather connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage centres of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, experts have warned. The experts have said the project, which is expected also to facilitate the rapid movement of armed forces to areas adjoining India’s border with China, would destabilise the fragile mountainous ecosystem.
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Geologist Navin Juyal said earlier there were one or two landslide locations on the highway stretch from Rishikesh to Chamba, over 560-km away, but they have now increased significantly. “Kunjapuri has become a chronic landslide spot, which is a new zone that has been created due to the widening of the road. In Alaknanda Valley, Saknidhar is another chronic landslide zone. As we keep moving upwards in the valleys, the landslide zones keep increasing,” said Juyal, who is also a member of the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee (HPC) formed last year to review the environmental impact of the project.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the width of the highway shall not exceed the 5.5 metres that the Union road transport and highways ministry specified in 2018 for under-construction roads in mountainous terrain. It referred to the fragility of the hilly terrain and impact of the road width on the Himalayan ecosystem while issuing the order.
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The Centre has been in favour of a two-lane highway with a width of seven metres. Some HPC members, including its chairman Ravi Chopra, have contended that such a broad road would be dangerous for the fragile Himalayan ecology that is highly susceptible to landslides. The court upheld the committee recommendation that road width should be 5.5 metres as against 7 metres that the National Highway Authority of India has recommended.
In its report to the court, HPC has pointed out that on the highway to Pithoragarh, 102 out of the 174 fresh cut slopes are landslide-prone. “...More landslides occur on those slopes which are weakened due to the inherent and external conditions which also includes the cutting of slopes.”
Uttarakhand’s Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre executive director Piyoosh Rautela said if there is any change in the natural slope of a mountain, it gets destabilised and landslides occur. “Remedial measures like building walls help but stability comes after the natural slope of a mountain is attained. And, it takes times, sometimes a lot of time.”
The experts have said heavy road construction without considering the fragility of the region has weakened the mountain areas, considering most of the work has been done on steep slopes, ranging from 45 to 80 degrees.
Dehradun’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology senior scientist Pradeep Srivastava said around 3,000 landslide points were activated when flash floods hit the Kedarnath Valley in 2013. “Development work is important, especially from a strategic point of view, but the fragility and geology of the Himalayas have to be factored in. With human interference, the magnitude of such [flood] events will increase and might become frequent as the hills are unstable.”
Environmentalist Malika Bhanot questioned vertical hill cutting for the project and said it leads to landslides in ecologically-sensitive areas. “The mountains in Uttarakhand have been destabilised due to vertical hill cutting done for widening the roads leading to the Char Dham shrines and because of that landslides have increased. If there is any such project which poses a threat to the lives of common people, then it cannot be labelled as development,” said Bhanot.
Three people were killed on August 24 in Tehri Garhwal district when they were buried under a landslide at Kaudiyala along the Rishikesh-Srinagar highway that is a part of the Char Dham project.
Bhanot said Uma Joshi, one of the petitioners in the case in Supreme Court, died along with seven others in a landslide on a stretch on Char Dham road in October. In December 2018, seven labourers working on the Char Dham road died in Rudraprayag district.
Uttarakhand Space Application Centre director MPS Bisht said it is clear that there has been an increase in landslides over the past few years but no study has been done so far to understand exactly how much damage has been done or exactly how many landslides have occurred.