Rising natural disasters in Himachal
In the last five months alone, several landslides have been reported in Himachal Pradesh, especially in the ‘Tribal’ districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur which have seen incessant rains. From June 13 to August 12, as many as 248 people lost their lives in various incidents relating to heavy rains.
At least 2,000 people were evacuated from 13 villages in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahual-Spiti district on 13 August, 2021, after a landslide blocked the flow of the Chandrabhaga River and led to the formation of a barrier lake that posed a threat to nearly homes.
Heavy rain triggered landslides in Kinnaur and Shimla districts of Himachal Pradesh on 24 September, 2021. State Disaster Management Director Sudesh Kumar Mokhta, said the national highway from Puwari to Kaza in Kinnaur district has been blocked after a landslide on September 23 evening. In Shimla, a road near Home Guard Office was blocked due to a landslide on September 23 evening. The official said that Naina Devi in Bilaspur received 180.6 mm rain followed by Kandaghat in Solan that received 65.2 mm rain. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who visited Nigulsari to oversee the rescue work after the incident, said the State government would conduct a geological survey of the area.
Jai Vijender Negi, 45, an orchardist at Batseri, says development has become a double-edged sword. He urges the government to review its policy on hydro power projects. “These incidents are a wake-up call for us. The dams and hydro power projects have brought prosperity to the region, but they have also brought suffering. During the construction of these power projects and dam, the use of rock blasting and heavy machinery in construction sites, besides tree felling, have damaged the fragile hills,” he says.
Om Prakash, who has been working at a tourist camping site in Batseri since the late 1990s, says landslides used to occur earlier as well but their member and intensity have increased in recent times.
There are not mere observations of residents. In its 2012 State Strategy and Action Plan on Climate Change, Himachal Pradesh’s Department of Environment, Science and Technology had pointed out that deforestation, landslides, land degradation, desertification and Glacier Lake Outbursts Floods are some of the common but critical environmental issues in the Himalayan region. The environment is facing major challenges given the escalation of such issues due to changes in the atmosphere and interferences by man, it said.
“Himachal Pradesh, through a small Himalayan State, is nevertheless playing a very crucial role in sustaining the livelihoods of downstream areas. The conservation, sustenance of these ecologically fragile regions is the biggest challenges being faced at the moment which can get further aggravated due to financial constraints and limited resources……. Therefore, it can be safely stated that climate change will manifest most in Himachal Pradesh,” it noted.
The report also stated that warning, erratic rainfall and rainfall changes, floods, and change in precipitation patterns are commonly observed events or are likely to occur in the region.
In a state of denial
Urni, a tiny village along National Highway 5 in Kinnaur district, witnessed a major landslide in 2014 which resulted in the erosion of several bighas of agricultural land and cracks in many houses. Ramanand Negi, 77, of Urni village, says the signs of ecology degradation are clearly visible, yet successive governments have been in a state of denial. “The key problem is that the government is quick to declare landslides as natural disasters. In July 2014, a big portion of our village was destroyed and so were several acres of agricultural and horticultural land including the orchards of over 20 families. The livelihoods of people are stake,” he says. People now live in fear, he adds.
The government gave relief to the affected families, but they have been demanding compensation, Negi says. “The administration maintains that flood irrigation could have triggered the landslide, but we don’t have any natural water sources here, so how can we use the method of flood irrigation? Our village is situated right above the intersection of the flushing tunnel, head race tunnel and two Adit tunnels of the 1091 MW Karcham-Wangtoo project built on the Sutlej River (commissioned on 2011). These tunnels were constructed using heavy machinery and rock blasting. We used to fell the vibrations when the blasting was done,” Negi says. He drops his head in despair as he points to the damaged portion of the hill slope.
Sita Ram, another resident, says he was a sub-contractor on the Karcham-Wangtoo project. “During construction, blasting was done for digging tunnels in the mountain. Cracks developed as a result, and the soil got eroded. Later, when heavy rain struck the region, there were landslips,” he says.
Manshi Asher, an environmentalist associated with the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, an advocacy and research group working on issues of environmental justice and forest rights in the Himalayan region, says the climate crisis has exacerbated the frequency and intensity of disasters over the past few decades. “But the most critical factor that gets hidden behind the label of ‘Natural Calamities’ is the kind of development model that we have adopted. It has led to deforestation, increased erosion and slope destabilization which not just trigger more disasters but multiply the damage caused. The State Disaster Management Authority report on Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment 2015 stated that 90% of the State is in the high-risk zone. Areas like Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti are particularly sensitive. Yet, the focus of policymakers and government departments is on management rather than prevention,” she says.
The State’s 2015 Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment report, which Asher refers to, reads, “Hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh are vulnerable to landslides due to geological, meteorological and anthropogenic factors. Several devastating landslides have occurred in Himachal Pradesh…. The hydro-meteorological conditions and fragile structural fabric of geological strata of Himachal Pradesh increase the possibility of landslides. Anthropogenic factors such as removal of vegetation cover, overloading of slopes by debris also contribute to a great extent. Development activities like construction of roads, tunnels and excavation for hydro projects have further accentuated the problem.” The report was prepared by the Disaster Management Cell of the Department of Revenue.
There are 932 hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, which include mini, small, large and mega projects. Most of these projects are in Kinnaur, Chamba and Shimla districts. Asher says there is plenty of evidence on how these calamities are not natural but such evidence is not fed into policy decisions. This is why governments continue pushing for more hydro power projects and four-lane highways, she says.
Protests against projects
Several residents of the Tribal Districts are now up in arms against the setting up of new power projects. Many assert that the projects severely impact the fragile mountain slopes and cause significant loss to life and property. As Kinnaur continues to bear the brunt of catastrophes, a group of youngsters at Kalpa gathered for a meeting on August 10 to craft a strategy to intensify their State-wide campaign of creating awareness against the setting up of new hydro power projects in the district.
Sunder Negi says the group got in touch with youth clubs of different villages. Through regular meetings, they are conveying these villages of the “ill-effects of power projects”. He believes that people should be aware about the impacts of such projects on water, forest and land and should come forward to speak up their mind “before it’s too late”.
A power sector expert and head of the Jangi Thopan Powari Hydroelectric Project, Roshan Negi, asserts that the construction of tunnels does not damage the ecology as the work is done in a scientific manner. “All the necessary precautions are taken while we construct tunnels. If the environment was at risk damage, the Government of India would have not allowed the setting up of these projects. However, I believe that there should always be a consensus with the locals before setting up a project. The projects that have been set up and the allied activities have given a boost to the local economy and infrastructure. They have benefited the residents over the years,” he says.
All these explanations don’t make much sense to Devi. She doesn’t know why, but she knows that landslides in the Sangla Valley have been increasing over the years. “For some 30 years it used to snow heavily in this area, but in recent years I have seen more rain than snow. At the same time, many dams and roads have come up and landslides have become common. Our rivers are turning muddy as they carry debris. The Government must take steps to preserve our mountains. Development is welcome, but not at the cost of human lives,” she says.
(The author hails from Kolkata)