At least 74 people have been killed in landslides and other rain-related incidents in Himachal Pradesh since Sunday. The government of Himachal Pradesh has declared the whole state as 'natural calamity affected area'.
Of these 51 were killed within the first 24 hours and Himachal Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu had said the scale of devastation was unheard of. Even now, the death toll is expected to go up as some are still feared trapped. Of the 74 dead, 21 died in Himachal's capital Shimla alone in three landslide incidents.
Amid such a high toll, experts have pointed to the unscientific construction in the ecologically-fragile Himalayas, the depleting forest cover, and the indiscriminate cutting of the hills as the reasons for increased landslides.
A report by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has also surfaced that had flagged poor urban planning in the hills and lack of enforcement of existing norms. The report also flagged the population burden faced by certain hilly cities.
Himachal Pradesh landslides fast facts
Himachal Pradesh has witnessed 113 landslides in 55 days since the beginning of the monsoon this year.
This is around six-times more than the last year as only 117 major landslides were witnessed in the entirety of 2022 compared to just 16 in 2020, reported PTI, citing data from the Himachal emergency operation centre.
CM Sukhu has said that the state has suffered a loss of around Rs 10,000 crore since the beginning of monsoon this year. Landslides have contributed to more than a third of these losses.
The Public Works Department (PWD) has suffered a loss of Rs 2,491 crore from landslides and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) about 1,000 crore, officials told PTI.
Himachal Pradesh is highly prone to landslides
The government data shows that there are 17,120 landslide-prone sites in Himachal, reported PTI, adding that 675 of these are near critical infrastructure and habitations.
The maximum of such prioritised landslide-prone sites are in Chamba (133) followed by Mandi (110), Kangra (102), Lahaul and Spiti (91), Una (63), Kullu (55), Shimla (50), Solan (44), Bilaspur (37), Sirmaur (21) and Kinnaur (15), reported PTI.
A former bureaucrat told PTI increased human activity and exploitation of natural resources for development pose a serious threat to ecology which is on the threshold of peril.
The major active landslides/sinking sites in Himachal included Jhandota and Kakroti villages, and Sapdoth Panchayat in Chamba; Mcleodganj Hill and Bariara village in Kangra; Baridhar to Kalyan Ghati Road; Mansar near Salogra; Jabalpatwar village in Solan; and Kotrupi, Doada Hanogi, and Mile 5, 6 and 7 near Pandoh and Nagani village in Mandi district, reported PTI, adding that the other sites include Urni Dhank, Batsari, Nesang, Purbani Julha in Kinnaur besides Nigulsari, where 28 persons were killed and 13 were injured in a major landslide on August 11, 2021.
"Ten such sites have been identified in Shimla district: Krishna Nagar, Halog, Bangla colony, Totu, Baldiyan, Mehali-Malyana road, Nerva Rest House, Patti Dhank, Niyani, Dharali, Kool Khad, Browni khad and Ladanala, Kotighat and Jiskon, Rohru-Chirgaon-Kotdwar road," reported PTI.
Notably, Shimla has emerged as the worst-hit district in Himachal in the devastation seen since Sunday. Three landslides have occurred and 21 people have died. The work to recover bodies is still going on and the toll is therefore almost certainly set to go up.
As per the Landslide Atlas of India prepared by the National Remote Sensing Centre, ISRO, Hyderabad, all 12 districts of Himachal are susceptible to landslides, reports dPTI.
"The landslide exposure analysis of the mountainous areas covering 147 districts in 17 states put Himachal's Mandi district at 16th place, followed by Hamirpur at 25, Bilaspur at 30, Chamba (32), Solan (37), Kinnaur (46), Kullu (57) Shimla (61), Kangra (62), Una (70), Sirmaur (88) and Lahaul and Spiti (126) in socio-economic parameter risk exposure map," reported PTI.
What's behind Himachal's landslides?
Experts have said that there are several human-made reasons behind landslides in Himachal, such as unscientific constructions in the ecologically fragile Himalayas, depleting forest cover, and structures near streams blocking the flow of water.
Geological expert Prof Virender Singh Dhar told PTI that extensive cutting of hill slopes for construction and widening of roads, blasting for tunnels, and hydro projects are the main reasons behind increase in landslides. He further said that vertical cutting of mountains for road construction has been witnessed in Himachal with just 5-10 feet retaining walls.
Experts have also said that slopes in Himachal have become highly vulnerable to landslides due to cutting of rocks at the foothills and the lack of proper drainage system, and high intensity rainfall is making the things worse for the state.
Following the ongoing devastation, CM Sukhu has also acknowledged the structural flaws in buildings and drainage systems in the hills and has said that the state government is going to approach these issues once the situation is contained.
Climate scientist Suresh Attre told PTI That rain intensity has increased and high temperatures coupled with heavy rains lead to landslides due to loosening of the strata in places which have undergone cutting downstream on the foothills.
Himachal receives about 730 mm of rains on an average during the whole monsoon season from June to September, but according to the Met department the state has received 742 mm rainfall this year till date, reported PTI.
NDMA report flagged poor planning, lax enforcement in 2019
As policymakers and experts look for reasons for the ongoing devastation in Himachal Pradesh, it has emerged that a report by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had flagged poor planning in hill states, population pressure, and lack of enforcement of norms in the hill states in a report in 2019.
The NDMA's report, titled National Landslide Risk Management Strategy, flagged Shimla and said that the city was built for a population of around 25,000 but now houses around 3,00,000 people, reported The Indian Express.
Highlighting poor infrastructure and civic services in the hilly areas, the report said "cities of the Himalayas are growing and beginning to turn into the mountains of garbage".
The report also flagged that there was no specific planning for the hills as plans were copied from the various Delhi Master Plans (DMPs), which have itself come under criticism over the years for not factoring in environmental and ecological concerns. For several years now, experts have said the successive Delhi plans encroached upon the Yamuna floodplains and allowed construction there. The encroachment of floodplains meant that Yamuna's natural space to swell was no longer available, which resulted in unprecedented flooding of Delhi this year.
The NDMA report further says that even the plans that are in place are not implemented properly.
"The widespread property loss during recent landslide and related hazards like cloudburst and flash-flood have shown that most of the constructions plans are ill-conceived and do not follow standard norms. The design codes are generally not followed even by the government departments. This has created an alarming situation, where large number of unsafe building stock is added each year to the already huge number of existing unsafe buildings in hostile climate, fragile environment and tectonically active unstable of hilly terrain," says the NDMA report.
The NDMA's further report said that whenever incidents like landslides happen, the authorities resort to "quick-fixes" instead of systemic correction of flaws. The report says that while such systemic corrective steps might seem expensive at first, their benefit will outweigh the cost