The land beneath their feet slips while authorities sleep
The districts of Rudraprayag and Tehri in Uttarakhand rank first and second in the country out of the 147 districts with a substantial landslide exposure. Since 2015, at least 3,601 major landslides have occurred in the Himalayan state.
Anoop Nautiyal 7 Sep 2023 6:58 AM GMT
Earlier in the month of August in Chamba, a town located in the Tehri district in Uttarakhand, Suman Khanduri left his young wife Poonam Khanduri, newborn infant Suman Singh, and his sister Saraswati Devi in a taxi at the stand near a police station. He told them that he would return quickly after completing some errands.
To his utter horror, Khanduri returned to an unimaginable sight — an entire section of the mountain had collapsed onto the taxi stand, taking the lives of his loved ones, in the blink of an eye.
Crushing stories such as this one are no longer isolated events in Uttarakhand’s disaster cycle, with at least three landslides this past August having left more than 30 dead or missing.
The cruelty of a landslide spares no one, as was evidenced by another heartbreaking tale from Gaurikund. The town serves as a basecamp for those en route to the holy shrine of Kedarnath in the Rudraprayag district.
Without warning, at around 11.30 pm on August 3, two shops and a dhaba were washed away in the rampaging Mandakini river, an incident triggered by a landslide. Twenty three people are feared dead as many bodies are yet to be recovered.
Roughly a week later, a group of pilgrims from Gujarat on their way to Kedarnath were mercilessly taken as their car was crushed in the debris following the collapse of a 80-metre portion of the highway again in the Rudraprayag district. Also in the car were a driver and a fellow pilgrim from Rajasthan. All five bodies were, in this case, recovered.
As is the case with states within the Himalayan region, a bulk of Uttarakhand’s mountainous terrain happens to be ecologically sensitive and prone to natural disasters. A handful of devastating disasters particularly over the past decade have thrust Uttarakhand and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh into the national spotlight.
This has perhaps led many to believe that rivers on rampage, flash floods or earthquakes are the preeminent danger people face. However, those who do reside and travel across Uttarakhand would be quick to tell you that what they have started fearing most above all recently is landslides.
Indian Space Research Centre, ISRO, and National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) published the Landslide Atlas of India in February of this year. It illustrates how volatile India, and specifically the Himalayan region is in regards to landslides.
The geospatial landslide inventory database consisting of ~80,000 landslides in India mapped by NRSC, ISRO under its Disaster Management Support programme was reported in the Atlas. The database covered landslide vulnerable regions in 147 districts in 17 states and two Union Territories of India in the Himalayas and Western Ghats. The database included three types of landslide inventory – seasonal, event-based, and route-wise for the 1998-2022 period.
The four types of exposure ISRO classified in the Landslide Atlas were total population, number of households, livestock and road exposure. When taking each of these categories into account, the districts of Rudraprayag and Tehri in Uttarakhand ranked first and second in the country out of the 147 districts with a substantial landslide exposure.
In fact, according to ISRO’s index, six of the top 30 most landslide prone districts like Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Pauri and Dehardun at the 19th, 21st, 23rd and 29th spots are located in Uttarakhand. Thirteen other districts from the Himalayan region from Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Assam and Manipur figure in the top 30 list.
Rather unironically, it is not breaking news to those living in the hill districts of Uttarakhand that they dwell upon land that could quite literally slip away from under their feet. The truth is that the numerous infrastructure, road widening and hydro power projects taking place in sensitive regions across the Himalayan belt are often rushed in their preparation.
They lack the appropriate due diligence needed to ensure that they are built soundly and with safety as the number one priority. The reasons behind this inept approach are multifold, but the overall sentiment boils down to a desire for short-term gains in favour of ecological planning that takes its environment in account.
For example, the construction of the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project in the Chamoli district required a massive tunnel to be bored through mountains. Landslides and shocking reports of subsidence in and around the neighbouring area of Joshimath have increased at an alarming rate since the start of 2023.
Local residents in Joshimath are categorical in their assessment and squarely blame the above NTPC project for their subsidence woes. This is a gargantuan government project, yet it is plain to see that even an undertaking of such magnitude was planned and approved with an unbearable amount of ecological apathy.
Without trying to engage in ‘blame game’ finger-pointing tactics when it comes to the troika of development, disasters and climate, the government of Uttarakhand clearly seems to be one step behind. It might appear that the state government has become relatively quicker at deploying disaster management forces than it was before but it is still not tackling the issue at its forefront.
That is, when such mega projects like the Char Dham All Weather Road or others are planned, announced and approved; there should be another check in place that has the wherewithal to guarantee such constructions are suitable or not for the sensitive areas.
Maybe it is easier for the politicians to rationalise the destruction caused by a flash flood because rains and cloudbursts are seen as incidents of climate change. However, with 3,601 major landslides hitting the state of Uttarakhand since 2015, the number of casualties and property damage inflicted by these events has ballooned as well. We must therefore, at both the central government and state levels, shift our focus from getting better at picking up the pieces to assuring that the pieces don’t fall to begin with.
Anoop Nautiyal is an Uttarakhand-based social worker. Views are personal.