The HPC recommended that the width of the Char Dham road project should be 5.5 metres instead of 7.5 meters being constructed by state’s public works department (PWD )to Supreme Court in third week of July 2020.(HT file photo)
The HPC recommended that the width of the Char Dham road project should be 5.5 metres instead of 7.5 meters being constructed by state’s public works department (PWD )to Supreme Court in third week of July 2020.(HT file photo)

Rampant construction, Char Dham project may amplify ecological risk

It’s the sound of hills being eaten into for the Char Dham road project; the rubble, including huge boulders from the blasted hill slopes are gathered all along the road, some perilously close to the edge. Geologists say this can’t be good for the high Himalayas.
By Jayashree Nandi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 20, 2021 02:38 AM IST

The noise of stone crushers and earthmoving equipment mars the silence of the high Himalayas on the road from Rudraprayag to Joshimath at a height of over 1,000 metres, and then again, up from Joshimath, around 2,000 metres high.

It’s the sound of hills being eaten into for the Char Dham road project; the rubble, including huge boulders from the blasted hill slopes are gathered all along the road, some perilously close to the edge. Geologists say this can’t be good for the high Himalayas.

The Centre submitted to the Supreme Court on Wednesday there is no link between the February 7 glacier lake overflow flood that washed away two hydropower projects on the Rishi Ganga and possibly killed at least 150 people and the Char Dham project.

But geologists and scientists say that together, the road construction and hydropower projects have increased the vulnerability of the region. They warn that many stretches of the Himalayas on the Char Dham route are now at risk of partial collapse.

One of the contentious points in the road project is the width. The apex court on September 9 ruled that the road width shall not exceed the 5.5 metres specified in 2018 by the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) for roads under construction in mountainous terrain. But a large part of the 900km project that promises to offer all-weather connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage centres in Uttarakhand has already been constructed with 10 metre-width.

Experts say it’s critical that the damage is stopped immediately owing to high seismic activity in the region and careless construction practices. “This road project is viable and there is a need for better connectivity and roads. But are ample precautions being taken to minimise damage? No. Have you conducted the study necessary to understand implications of this nature of construction?” said Navin Juyal, a retired geologist from the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and member of the high-powered committee formed by the apex court to examine the environmental implications of the Char Dham project.

“For Himalayan roads, three things are very important to consider: One is the slope. In Rishikesh for example there are lower slopes and as you go higher up, the slopes are steep which can be prone to erosion. The other important aspect is the nature of rocks. Are they inclined towards the road or the other side? The third is extent of vegetation and loose material on the hill being cut. One should never do a vertical scarp against the road.”

“The government is saying it wants a 12-metre-wide two-lane road with paved shoulder. If you consider the right of way needed this means 24 metres. How will you get that much area in the high Himalayas? Then you have to cut the hills. No wonder over 50,000 trees had to be cut to make way for some of these stretches. But have we assessed what’s the collateral damage?” asked Juyal, giving the example of a 10km stretch, Totaghati, ahead of Rishikesh where rock composition in the hills change almost every 100 metres. The stretch includes limestone, quartzite and slate. “As you know some of them are very brittle while some just erode. These have to be studied very carefully but they weren’t.”

Then there is the seismic risk.

“Chamoli experienced a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 1999 and Uttarkashi experienced a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in 1991. The main frontal thrust, main boundary thrust and the main central thrust (all geological faults in the Himalayas) are extremely active, which means they have the potential to generate a great earthquake. So, any construction in this region has to be carried out extremely carefully. The Himalayas are still evolving and hence seismologically active,” explained AP Pandey, a scientist at the National Center for Seismology.

Even members of the 21-member majority panel of the SC’s high powered committee who supported double- laning of the Char Dham road project, in their report, say slopes are unstable in many areas.

“Where there are hard rocks, hills have to be cut vertically. There is little option. But then slope stabilisation has to be carried out. Slopes are unstable in many places... Authorities have been asked to make a detailed project report of unstable slopes so that they can be stabilised,” said Vikram Gupta, scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.

The minority committee report, authored by the chairman of the panel, Ravi Chopra, underlined that higher Himalayan rocks are subjected to high erosion primarily due to focused rainfall, progressively high relief (slopes), high concentration of earthquakes and weak rock types. Correspondence in the Current Science journal by MPS Bisht of Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University and Piyoosh Rautela of Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre in 2010 highlighted that disaster looms over the Joshimath region.

Situated in proximity of major tectonic discontinuities, Joshimath has been showing signs of distress due to burgeoning anthropogenic pressure, the paper said. “The Mishra Commission (1976) reported that Joshimath is situated on an old landslide zone and is sinking. The report recommended that heavy construction be banned in the area around Joshimath. Despite being fully aware of the geological/environmental vulnerability of the area, a number of hydroelectric schemes have been sanctioned around Joshimath and Tapovan,” it read. These warnings were not heeded to by the Char Dham project.

“The problem is government doesn’t consult scientists when implementing a project. We are called to give our opinion and the matter ends there,” said senior geologist, professor YP Sundriyal of the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University.

Bharat Singh, a resident of Raini village, which was devastated by the February flood, was among the first to notice a cloud of debris and ice flowing down and destroying Rishi Ganga and Tapovan projects. He said: “Our hills have been destroyed. Tunnels have been dug up on the river. I wonder if these disasters are because of such projects? Only gods can help us.”

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