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Himachal Floods: Nature Reclaims Her Own

Environmentalists have long been warning the government about the consequences of reckless degradation of the environment. But our governments acted as if they were blind and deaf, all scientific and expert warnings were ignored, and life went on as usual in the interests of tourism and development.

Swollen Beas river following incessant rains, in Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh
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It took nature just one cataclysmic week in Himachal Pradesh to reclaim the spaces which Man had been encroaching upon for decades, both in the river valleys and the mountain slopes. As the waters begin receding, they leave behind ample evidence of our hubris, stupidity and avarice.

Himachal has lost more than 100 lives, dozens of vehicles, hundreds of buildings and bridges, and many kilometres of roads to the recent floods. But one fact is clear - the maximum destruction of lives and the public and private party has occurred in the river valleys of Beas and Ravi, and along the two four-laned arteries of the NHs - Parwanoo-Solan and Mandi-Manali. It is no coincidence that these are precisely the alignments where our policymakers have caused the maximum devastation of the environment.

Our anthropogenic footprints in these areas have been overwhelming, much more than what nature can sustain and repair. Different digits of this footprint - illegal and legal mining, building construction on steep slopes and rivers’ flood plains, hydel projects with their attendant blasting and muck dumping, road construction and widening, deforestation of thousands of trees - all these coalesced in this one week of July and triggered a reaction by nature which should have been expected.

Environmentalists have long been warning the government about the consequences of reckless degradation of the environment. The Shukla Committee report (commissioned by the High Court itself) of 2010 had called for a halt to hydel projects and for the protection of the rivers, arguing that “there is no such thing as an environment-friendly hydel project.” The practical proof was provided, if evidence was needed, by the devastation of Rishi Ganga and Uttarkashi. But our governments acted as if they were blind and deaf, all scientific and expert warnings were ignored, and life went on as usual in the interests of tourism and development.

Let us be clear about one thing: this month’s devastation is not due to climate change or extreme weather events - these have certainly amplified the problem but have not created them. They have been created by wrong policies, bad engineering, lax enforcement and criminal disregard for scientific principles and expert advice.

Much of the four-laning of the Manali right bank road has been done on the river bed of Beas, as videos now show, by erecting retaining walls on the flood plains and filling them up. Where have the NHAI engineers got their degrees from, for God’s sake? Do they even have an idea of the destructive force of a mountain river cascading down in full flow, carrying huge boulders, trees and silt that will demolish anything in its path? Did they ever bother to study the history of the Beas and the damage it has caused in the past? Today, at least 6 km of the four-lane highway has been washed away. This road between Kullu and Manali will now remain closed for months. It is significant to note that the only road still functional - the left bank road - is the road which the NHAI did not (thankfully) touch. Surely there’s a lesson for us here.

The four-lane highway between Parwanoo and Dharampur also no longer exists: after spending Rs 4000 crores and ten years on converting a two-lane highway into a four-lane one, we are now left with the original two-lane highway! The cause here is not a river but a mountain slope, and stupid engineering again. The original road was widened by cutting vertically into the mountain slopes, sometimes as much as 15 to 20 metres. One wonders whether the PWD and NHAI engineers had done their technical due diligence before letting loose their machines on this portion of the Himalayas. Did they, for instance, study the geomorphology of the mountains? Did they carry out tests to determine natural bulk density, soil resistivity, bearing capacity of the soil etc? Did they do a hydrometer analysis and sieve analysis of the soil to determine the water-absorbing capability of the soil? Did they take adequate steps such as rock concreting and anchor bolting to stabilise the excavated portions of the slopes? The extent of the damage would suggest that perhaps none of this was done and so here also the four-laning is just a memory now. More public money is down the drain, along with thousands of tonnes of muck and rocks. We hope the government will respond to some of the questions raised above, but I am not holding my breath.

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This constant road construction has generated millions of tonnes of muck which have just been dumped into the rivers, raising their beds, constricting their width and reducing their carrying capacity. Just imagine, the Kiratpur-Manali four lane alone has 21 tunnels - where do you think all that excavated muck has gone? On paper, they have been dumped in landfills; the enormous cost involved is shown in estimates and paid to the contractors, but in fact, they have been dumped in the nearest river or just rolled down the hillside!

Enter illegal (and legal) mining on the river beds, which goes on unchecked everywhere. This, along with the muck dumping, results in the rivers changing course quite often: this phenomenon has been responsible for much of the damage along the Beas this time. This too is something our highway engineers neither anticipated nor planned for.

Hydel projects too have played their part in the destruction. They obstruct the natural flow of these rivers, allow the building up of muck and sediment, and then release them in a torrent when they open their floodgates - it is this, rather than just the waters, which cause the maximum damage, especially to buildings and bridges, on impact. These dams are touted as flood control mechanisms, but in fact, the opposite is true, at least on mountain rivers. They retain vast volumes of water (which is their revenue-generating inventory, after all) till the last moment; when they release these waters, the consequences downstream are cataclysmic: most of the flooding and destruction in Pandoh market and Mandi this time was caused by the opening of all five flood gates of the Pandoh dam.

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As I write this, the full extent of the destruction is yet to be assessed. Restoration work shall start soon, and that is precisely what I am fearful of. More taxpayers’ money will be used to repeat the mistakes of the past. My most fervent hope and prayer is that we learn from this catastrophe and change our engineering, planning and ambitions - that we do not build again on the river beds, that we stop this four-laning madness, that we stop the blasting, tunnelling and vertical cutting of mountainsides, that we start listening to the objections of the local populations and acknowledge their protests, that we put a moratorium on further hydel projects. Surely the government should be able to see the mathematics, if not the science and common sense, in what has just happened? In just two weeks the state has suffered more revenue loss than what it can earn in years. It’s more than time to stop this cycle of stupidity from playing out, again and again, every few years. Nature has started reclaiming what was always rightfully hers. Respect that and do not provoke her again.

(Avay Shukla is an environmentalist, writer and retired additional chief secretary with the Himachal Pradesh government.)

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