Careless Highway Construction Endangers Ecology
and Livelihoods in Himalayan Region

Bharat Dogra

50,000 trees. This is the number of trees that are likely to have been cut in ecologically highly sensitive places in the course of the implementation of just two of the many highway-widening projects recently in the Himalayan region. These two projects are— the Parwanoo Solan highway in Himachal Pradesh and the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand. Many more trees are threatened.

Suresh Bhai, a social activist based in Uttarkashi district (Uttarakhand) who has been pointing out the hazards of careless highway widening says, “Our on-the-site investigations revealed that one big tree is cut several nearby smaller trees are also damaged in the process. Cutting of trees causes landslides at new places and this in turn leads of loss of more trees.”

He along with senior Gandhian Radha Behan and other activists prepared a detailed report which shows the havoc that has been caused to the forests and trees of such eco-sensitive zones as the Gangotri region, where the Ganga river (known here as the Bhagirathi) originates. In addition, this report depicted numerous ways in which indiscriminate construction activity is likely to cause disasters similar to the floods which devastated Uttarakhand in 2013. The report also shows how many villagers, farmers and small-market shopkeepers feel threatened as their homes and places of livelihoods face increasing risks of landslides and floods as a result of the fragile, geologically young hills being disturbed by the use of heavy machinery and blasting in the course of the highway construction work. Enormous amount of debris and rubble have been poured into rivers and this is a prescription for disasters as this can unleash and aggravate floods in the rainy season.

In Parwanoo-Solan highway widening project also several roadside villagers say that their homes and livelihoods are threatened like never before. Villagers and drivers who frequently drive on this road say that there was no need to disturb and cut these hills in the way these have been ravaged. Traffic could have been smoothened and improved in consultation with local communities without devastating the fragile hills and their ecology.

Mangoti Nande Ka Thara used to be a beautiful, picturesque roadside village on this highway. No more. Today it is a badly threatened village where farms have been devastated and cracks have started appearing in the hills. Anil Kumar says, “Such a big crack has appeared in my house that the administration asked me to vacate the house. I have vacated my house but where do I go now? For the time being my family has taken shelter in my brother’s home but the cracks appear to be spreading there.”

In fact when I visited this village recently, in a group meeting several villagers said that the future of their village is badly threatened by increasing risks to such an extent that they are requesting government for satisfactory rehabilitation at a suitable site. “We keep awake on rainy nights fearing some disaster. Two cowsheds collapsed recently.”

These and other villages draw a clear distinction between the land that was acquired earlier (for which compensation has been paid) and the damage they suffered later as a result of the ruthless and indiscriminate construction not suitable for these fragile hills. For all this later damage they have not been compensated, people of these villages say.

Similar threatening conditions in other roadside habitations have appeared on this highway –in Sanwara village, in Hardinge colony near Dharampur and also in some places near Kumarhatti. Numerous landslides, including several new ones, and the big boulders and rubble thrown up by highly devastated hills tell their own sad tale.

Several flaws have been pointed out by experts as well as local people in the case of these projects—road widening to a wider extent than desirable, use of improper technology for hill-cutting, hurry to award big contracts without taking expert ( geological, ecological, social and engineering) opinion, avoiding proper environmental and social appraisal, sub-dividing projects into smaller portions to avoid mandatory appraisals and public hearings, excluding local communities from decision-making and monitoring processes, adopting top-heavy and centralized approach which is also arbitrary.

All this has led to the maximization of ecological and social costs instead of striving to minimize them. The stated aims of quickly completing projects have also not been achieved as frequent landslides keep delaying the work. The number of new landslide zones has increased alarmingly while old ones have become more active.

Frequent drivers on these roads say that they now find the roads riskier than before and the possibility of the journey being delayed or disrupted by landslide has also increased. In such conditions tourist are likely to suffer more. Defence related traffic is important on these roads and this will also suffer if there is greater risk of landslides and other disasters.

Predictably due to careless work and lack of cautionary planning, there are cost overruns in these highly expensive and corruption-ridden projects. However, these are only two of the very large number of highway construction projects which have been pushed in the Himalayan region in recent times and contracts of thousands of crores of Rs. have been awarded in a hurry without much thought for the ecological and social costs and the aggravation of disasters in sensitive, fragile Himalayan regions.

As a result of the efforts by organizations like Greens of Doon a   significant amount of attention has already been drawn towards ecological and social impacts of these projects. However, a much broader review of all the highway construction and widening projects in the Himalayan region is also needed so that adequate precautions to minimize social and environmental costs can be taken and mistakes which have proved so costly in these projects are not repeated elsewhere.

More specifically in the case of the two projects analyzed here, much can still be done to reduce the ecological adverse impacts and to reduce the distress caused to local people. There should be no further delay in taking remedial action as already so much avoidable damage has been caused.

The writer is a freelance contributor. His latest book on Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and Anti-Tehri Dam Movement has been published very recently.    

The author is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.

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Jun 2, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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