Wake-up call on Himalayan development

Checks & Balances: Geetanjali Minhas discusses infrastructure development in the ecologically sensitive region with experts

GN Bureau | January 17, 2024

##Himalayas #Uttarakhand #Floods #ClimateChange #Environment #Infrastructure  

Several infrastructure projects in the Himalayan region have been affected by extreme weather conditions and disasters over the years. Not only are the Himalayas the youngest mountains in the world but geologically extremely sensitive and therefore it requires extreme caution for any development taking place in the region.

In November 2023, after the collapse of an under-construction tunnel in Silkyara near Uttarkashi of Uttarakhand, 41 workers remained trapped inside and it took 17 days to rescue them. This state, along with the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, had witnessed the fury of flash floods recurrently during the summer last year. Before that, reports had started appearing that homes, hotels and roads in the pilgrimage town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand had developed big and deep cracks due to land subsidence. Meanwhile, glacial floods led to major devastation in Sikkim in the north-east last year.

These are only some of the disasters that have occurred due to weak geology combined with environmental destruction caused by cutting of trees, loss of soil, green cover and increase of carbon. Environmentalists and geologists have repeatedly warned of haphazard construction taking place in the fragile region for dams, power projects, roads and tunnels with an eye on increased revenue from tourism and pilgrimages.

With glaciers right at the top of Himalayas melting at a faster rate than many other parts of the world, due to their non-uniform layer of ice and snow: glaciers that are thinner tend to melt faster and in the process create glacial lakes. In the event of heavy rainfall or precipitation they can collapse leading to major flood devastation downstream like the one in 2013 in Kedarnath and the one in Sikkim in 2023.

Geologically the entire Himalayan range is weak, having a series of four major fault zones – Himalayan Frontal Thrust, Main Boundary Thrust, Main Central Thrust and the Indo Tibet Suture zone. From each of these, mountain ranges have emerged. For example, the Shivaliks have emerged from the Himalayan Frontal Thrust, and the outer Himalayas have emerged from the Main Boundary Thrust.

In effect, this means the rock underneath the crust of the earth is rising up, being pushed up and in the process causing a lot of friction and crashing of the rocks with each other. This leads to cracks, fissures in the rocks and a lot of crushed material as the rocks slide past each other.

The Himalayas are crisscrossed by many other smaller fault zones also, such as North Almora Crust, the South Almora Crust etc., and require extreme caution in disturbing these weak geological zones.

Besides, the region is very eco-sensitive as several plant and animal species, such as Asian Elephant, Snow Leopard, Western Trivopan, Golden Masheer, Snow Trout etc. are not found in large numbers elsewhere.

Like the plains, infrastructure is also required in the mountains to provide facilities to the locals and also to promote tourism. Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now discussed these key points with experts:

You can watch the episode here: https://youtu.be/U05iUu5O0E0

Professor Ravi Chopra, former chairperson of the Supreme Court appointed high-powered  committee on Char Dham Pariyojana and also former chairman of the SC-appointed expert body on the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, said that infrastructure affects the slopes, it affects the rivers. It also affects habitation due to rapid development of not only infrastructure but also urbanisation. Most important feature is to carry out a very careful investigation of the geology and ecology of the region which requires time. Unfortunately, he said, in the recent past the government has tended to push through at a very rapid pace the infrastructure projects ignoring laws and rules.

He also underlined the criticality of carrying out conscientious environment impact reports (EIA) in large projects which should never be avoided he pointed, no EIA was done for the Char Dham Project.  

Prof. Chopra said that entire regulatory system of environment management has been ruined. “State Pollution Control Boards the Central Pollution Control Board have been terribly weakened. They have neither the staff nor the budgets to do a good job. The approval/sanctioning committees are appointed … usually a few days before the meeting. They get a whole stack of EIA reports, detailed project reports to go through. Nobody has the time to do that. So, people during the journey to attend the meeting ... scan through quickly to be able to say something intelligent. These meetings are rushed and they are not paying proper attention.

“The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the Central Electricity Authority which sanctions dams and so on do pre-feasibility studies… many of the problems get identified… But after that, DPR consultants don't even visit the location. They prepare their reports sitting in Delhi or Dehradun, without considering the local situation. The next regulatory job is that of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. This ministry is more worried about sanctioning development projects rather than saying ‘we want sustainable development’. So, the ministry is undervalued by the government and underrated by its officials.”

Prof. Chopra further pointed that MoRTH, in 2018, noting devastation and instability of slopes, loss of green cover and some other key considerations due to the increase in road width to 10 metres after its 2012 policy, issued a notification to the effect that width of roads across the country where there is limited traffic, like in the mountains, should be 5.5 metres.

“In the Char Dham Pariyojana this notification, which was issued in March of 2018, was not revealed either to the courts or to the HPC which was supposed to monitor the project. ... And in the course of finalising the report, accidentally one of our members came across this notification, brought it to our attention and there was a big dispute on the width of the road within the committee. But finally when the final report was submitted to the court of Justice Rohinton Nariman, even though it was the recommendation of the minority group in the in the committee, the Justice said that's the notification of the ministry, it has to be followed. Later on the government went and changed the notification and so they are going ahead with the 10-meters,” said Prof. Chopra.

As for the the Silkyara tunnel, he said that it was located near the Main Central Thrust and thus lies in a disturbed region. “It has a forest, thick soil cover on top of the slope. Under the soil cover is a mixture of rocks including limestone. The forest which is primarily Oak and Rhododendron trees allow rain water to seep into the soil and to the limestone which dissolves the Limestone and creates cavities. Cavities means there's nothing there,” he explained, adding that this leads to tremendous weakness that has to be carefully taken care of. Knowing that there are these geological infirmities, was careful investigation done?

Environmentalists say that every extra metre of slope cutting leads to the loss of forests, trees, soil and green cover. Like the leaves of the trees, soil is also a sink for carbon dioxide. The slopes get weakened in the cutting process. They say every time big machines like earth movers strike into the rocks, the energy further weakens the rocks.

Dr Hemant Dhyani, convener, Ganga Ahawan Citizens Forum, and member, Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee on Char Dham Project, says that ecological load carrying capacity of the Char Dham valley must be accessed for putting up power, road, tourism and other infrastructure projects.

The settled principle of making a road in the hills – to cut the mountain and fill from the downside, not to dump debris in the downside hills or the rivers, tributaries – is not being followed. “This is in the guidelines of the road construction. But agencies are giving contracts to contractors who are not following the law and there is no accountability,” he said.

He explained that against the set capacity limit of people allowed per day is 9,000 people to Gangotri, 6,000 to Yamunotri, 15,000 to Badrinath, and 16,000 to Kedarnath, which was more than two times as per calculations of environmentalists and experts for these close-ended valleys surrounded by glaciers.

Yet, in Gangotri the number of people is increasing to 12,000-15,000 and going up every year. The Char Dham highways, he added, are planned for movement of more than 10,000 vehicles on a single day, which means 50,000 to 60,000 people will be able to travel to these places. In addition, for the under-construction Char Dham Railway project from Rishikesh to Karanprayag, massive tunnelling of 110 kms out of the total 125 km is going on. This, he said, will add to the burden as it will require many parking places, hotels for people to stay, petrol and diesel vehicles generating black carbon, which will sit on glaciers enhancing their melting.

“By building infrastructure right on the streams and rivers, they are devastating everything. Who is guiding your motivation for development? Is there any foresighted thought which is motivating your way of development? It is pure greed to make more and more money … vested interests of very few people … but a great loss of the country, the resources, valuable culture and environment in long term,” said Dr Dhyani.

Just like the Bhagirathi project in 2012 where big hydro projects were cancelled between Gangotri and UttarKashi and the entire catchment was declared an eco-sensitive zone with regulations and demarcations in place, Dr Dhyani said the same approach is required elsewhere in the Himalayas. “The Himalayas are ecologically fragile, geologically highly landslide hazard zones and fall in seismic Zone 4 and 5,”he said.
“This is Char Dham, our Himalayas, our Ganga, our cultural identity. Hum us desh ke vaasi hain jis desh mein ganga behti hai … but all our vision, eyes, motives are only focusing to extract revenue from the Himalayas and Ganga… that is the basic fundamental flaw.”

Environmentalists say the Himalayan region needs to have a special development approach with special attention to its niches of agriculture and horticulture. Like the rest of the world, special fruits, grains and other specialities from the mountains should be promoted.

For developing tourism, visitors can be taken to many locations in the state to enjoy beauties of nature, panoramic scenes of snow-clad Himalayas, beautiful forests with all kinds of birds and animals. All the flowing streams and rivers will have to be preserved.

Combined with systems of homestay, well-trained young people can take the visitors on hikes and tours and give knowledge about the local culture, niche grains and other fruits.

“There's a need to increase investment, research, and distribution of knowledge for the approach to green economy which several government committees have written about and the government knows but it is proceeding with that same old model which prevails elsewhere in the country,” says Prof. Chopra.

As for the safety of construction workers, the Building and Other Construction Workers Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act 1996 with as many as 250 rules framed in 2006, is a comprehensive legislation covering all safety aspects of construction workers.

However, benefits from the provisions of these safety rules have not reached the workers, says V. Hittanagi, retired joint labour commissioner, Karnataka, and ex-CEO Karnataka Construction Workers Welfare Board.

He said that except for some big companies, safety rules for construction workers are neither being implemented nor followed. “90% contractors to avoid the extra financial burden expose the workers to hazards. They are required to be trained in the usage of PPE tools. No training is given which is a major lapse on part of the contractors. Most contractors are ... fly-by-night operators. For them the project has to be completed within a given time ... and let me make this categorical statement ... giving attention or implementing… provisions relating to safety is an additional cost for them.”  

Many workers have height phobia. No assessment is done to ascertain if they're medically fit to work at higher altitudes. Safety nets in case of fall are not there. Proper lighting, first-aid boxes are not there. There is no tie-up with nearby hospitals in case of emergency. We have seen dead bodies being left on site and the building owner or the contractors run away, he said.

Workers’ welfare boards collect 1% of the construction cost as cess, and become cash rich with a kitty of Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore. However, there is a lack of uniformity in welfare schemes to develop skills and delivery is slipshod. Bogus beneficiaries are enrolled by middlemen on a rampant scale.

“Unfortunately, some of these boards are not functioning in accordance with the spirit and provisions of the Act. Worker service records like personal details, employment letter, attendance and pay slip are required to be maintained, but are not kept. When the worker dies, they deny that he was employed at site,” he said.

Hittanagi said that the enforcement machinery designated to conduct inspections at the worksite under the law must be strengthened to ensure checking at regular intervals. Inspection of the workshop regarding health and safety parameters must be undertaken. Education of construction workers on safety aspects is very essential but is lacking – it must be undertaken without exception. The department of factories, which is entrusted with these responsibilities, must galvanise itself.

This law should have brought a qualitative change in the life of construction workers. Though the Supreme Court has intervened and given comprehensive directions to all states to implement the law in letter and spirit and the central government to regularly monitor it, unfortunately, little has been done.



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