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Growing incidence of landslides demand more proactive preventive steps

Bharat Dogra details the horror of living with the constant fear of being buried under an avalanche of stones, let loose by thoughtless degradation of fragile hill landscapes in the name of development

This year, there has been a spate of huge landslides all over the Himalayan Region, much more than what is considered ‘normal’. Hundreds of people have fallen victim to these calamities, not only in the Himalayas but also in the Ghat sections. Almost the entire Irshalwadi Village in Raigad District, about 65 km from Mumbai, was wiped out not long ago – only a few of the nearly 50 houses were spared. The area was battered by heavy rains, triggering the massive landslide.

The remote village is so difficult to approach that even well-trained rescue teams found it difficult. Bringing in heavy machines for removing debris and rescuing people was even more challenging. When rescue work was finally called off after nearly four days of a high-risk operations, 27 bodies had been recovered, but at least 57 people were still missing and there was little likelihood of them being found alive. The death toll in the nearly 230-strong settlement was put at between 84 and 110. This tragedy could have been avoided if the people had been able, with government help, to shift to safer locations, or if appropriate steps had been taken to protect the crumbling hills and prevent landslides.

Other similar tragedies have occurred in the Western Ghat regions of Maharashtra in the recent past – in Raigad and Pune Districts – leaving between 80 and 110 people dead. Last year (2022), many lives were lost in landslides in Manipur and during the Amarnath pilgrimage in Kashmir. Flash floods added to the destruction. In 2021, landslides in the Western Ghats and the Himalayan Region claimed over a hundred lives.

Smaller landslides also wreaked havoc, destroying houses and making survival difficult for families. About 12 per cent of India’s land mass is hilly and exposed to the threat of landslides in India. Flash floods extend the potential danger to the plains. According to the Durham Fatal Landslide Database, the actual number of landslide-related fatalities globally from 2004 to 2010 was five to ten times the earlier figures, jumping from between 3000 and 7000 to 32300.

Two important facts have emerged from several recent landslide disasters which are linked – One: Several were reported from sites of heavy construction activity. The Manipur disaster was in the region of a railway project, where safety precautions were neglected. Others were reported from highway construction and dam construction areas where blasting was done despite advice against such activity. Secondly, these disasters put at risk construction workers employed in hilly areas, particularly those from the plains who are unused to living in landslide-prone zones. The landslide in the Ramban area of the Jammu-Srinagar highway in 2022 killing 10 workers and the one at the Tehri Project site in Uttarakhand in August 2004 which claimed many more lives, are cases in point.

Many landslides are being caused by man-made factors, including indiscriminate construction activities or mining, and adequate precautions can help prevent them. The micro-silica treatment had not yet been done at the Tehri Project, and P.C. Navani, a senior geologist, had commented then that work in the unlined area should have been avoided at all costs in the rainy season. Indiscriminate deforestation and tree-cutting as well as excessive mining and quarrying in fragile zones are other factors responsible for the rise in landslides.

Poor people, who cannot afford houses in more secure areas, sometimes agree to settle in the more risky, landslide-prone areas, increasing their vulnerability to disaster. Other people are driven more by greed than need, and there are several examples of rich persons indulging in over-construction, increasing the pressure on the fragile hills. Hotel construction in hill stations is particularly to blame, but sometimes even government agencies are at fault too in this regard. Land use in the hills has to be even more carefully regulated than in the plains.

On the plus side, research and development of new technology has resulted in impressive protective measures being implemented at some locations. However, more often than not, protection work fails to get adequate support and funding and therefore do not meet required standards. Another important aspect relates to identifying habitations which have become unsafe due to the threat of landslides, and shifting them to safer places. On the other hand, if adequate protection work can be undertaken on an urgent basis, operations to shift habitations need not be carried out.

Some time back, this writer visited Mangoti Nande Ke Thara Village located alongside NH-5, between Parwanoo and Dhrampur in Himachal Pradesh. Cracks had appeared in houses as a result of indiscriminate construction practices used while widening the highway. The villagers said they were afraid to sleep during the rainy seasons, for fear of landslides and house collapse. They said they had received compensation for land acquired for road widening but none for the damage to houses caused later. Other settlements in and around Sanawra, Hardinge Colony, Kumarhatti and other places too faced similar problems, they said, and demanded to be shifted to a place of safety.

The Maharashtra Chief Minister has promised to resettle the people of Irshalwadi in a safer place, but past experience doesn’t lead one to set much store by such promises. A much better and more sympathetic response is needed for people who have already suffered such heavy losses and even lost near and dear ones. Governments are generally also reluctant to admit the link between hazardous construction or mining work and landslides, and so the affected people are denied compensation.

In the huge tragedy of Joshimath, where a very large number of houses developed cracks and became highly unsafe for living, despite the great deal of attention drawn to the indiscriminate construction activities in the fragile area, satisfactory solutions for affected people have not emerged yet. Recently in many families in the Janglik and Thaitwadi Villages near Shimla had to be shifted from their homes which were under threat from landslides, and housed in temporary shelters. Though as a first step this was commendable, it wasn’t followed up by assurances of longer-term relief and safe housing.

Landslides need a multi-faceted and proactive response, and mere reactions to serious situations won’t do. Hill-people well understand the seriousness of this increasing risk and if a comprehensive programme is taken up with their participation to reduce the danger, the results will be good.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)