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Scary scenes of mountains rolling down in Himachal -- a wake-up call

IANS | August 20, 2023 01:22 PM

SHIMLA: Scary scenes of mountains rolling down, dams flooded, rivers gobbling up road networks, sweeping away hutments, villages submerged and thousands of people stranded in low-lying area have been coming out from the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh after relentless monsoon fury -- an unprecedented phenomenon and a wake-up call too.

Climate experts say flooding and landslides are common during monsoon but the climate crisis is making the rains stronger and more erratic. It is an urgent signal to act on the climate crisis and to think of a long-term infrastructure plan.

The ferocious Beas ate up a large part of a highway running parallel to the riverbank and washed away at least nine bridges in Mandi and Kullu regions, snapping even pedestrian movement.

The Chandigarh-Shimla national highway has remained blocked for several days owing to frequent landslides in Chakki Mor on the Parwanoo-Dharampur section.

As per government records, 126 people have lost their lives due to landslides and flash floods since July 26, the onset of monsoon, vital for agriculture and the livelihoods of millions. Thirty eight people are missing.

The state has seen 113 landslides and 58 cloudbursts.

The damage to roads has been extensive in Kullu, Mandi and Shimla districts. For the first time, the bottom of the century-old Shimla-Kalka railway line was swept away in the landslide near Shimla and is hanging in the air.

“Our hometown is crumbling, a place where one grew up, walked to school and loved the mist and beauty of clouds. The rains now spell more doom and a dry day scares you of more slides, ” remarked Additional Director General of Police Satwant Atwal, who was brought up in Shimla that served as the summer capital of British India between 1864 and 1939.

As the state has been reeling under the relentless onslaught of nature’s fury, a landslide in the Summer Hill area of Shimla on August 14 led to the smashing of a temple that was crowded with devotees, raising fears that the death toll could rise. Fourteen bodies have been pulled out of the rubble as rescue work is still on.

On the same day, a cloudburst in Solan district claimed seven lives.

Chief Minister Sukhvinder Sukhu, who demands more automatic weather stations, has said that it will definitely take a year to restore the state due to the colossal damage estimated at around Rs 10, 000 crore.

He said a 157 per cent surge in rainfall was recorded in the state in 48 hours, the most rain in decades.

Presiding over a meeting here on Thursday, the Chief Minister said the main cause of the cracks on the roads is lack of proper drainage and cross-drainage systems.

“Henceforth, new road construction sans a proper drainage system will not be approved or passed, ” he said, adding this could only be ensured by quality work at the time of construction.

Last month also the state saw heavy monsoon showers on July 8 and 9, leaving a trail of widespread destruction.

The heavy loss of life caused by such calamities can be mainly attributed to the increasing human activity, particularly along the rivers and water channels.

Even the state's cold desert Lahaul-Spiti, the rain-shadow zone, had to face a deluge last month.

Climate scientists say in recent years flash floods have intensified as the mountains are getting older and they contribute to more silt and sand. The haphazard dumping of muck and debris along streams and rivers that disturbs their natural course often multiplies hazardous landslide chain reactions downstream.

Also debris from blasting and construction of hydropower projects and national highway projects is dumped on slopes, damaging the vegetation too.

Advocating sustainable development, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the state High Court have time and again rapped the state authorities over their lack of response to the growing unauthorized constructions across the state, especially in the capital.

Locals blame the politicians for converting the picturesque towns into concrete jungles.

In Shimla alone there are 14 major areas, located on an average gradient of 70-80 degree, where a majority of the buildings violate by-laws and building norms and haven’t even adhered to seismic norms.

Officials of the Town and Country Planning Department told IANS that Shimla’s northern slope of the Ridge, an open space just above the Mall that extends to Grand Hotel in the west and Lakkar Bazaar in the east, is slowly sinking.

“Most buildings are precariously hanging on to steep slopes and clinging to one another. A moderate or high-intensity quake can be catastrophic for congested settlements with no escape routes. They can collapse like a pack of cards, ” the official added.

The frightening reality of a recent performance audit on disaster management, with specific focus on earthquake and fire, conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) says 90 per cent of the buildings, mainly houses, in the rural areas of the state do not follow safe construction rules.

In Shimla, 83 per cent out of a sample of 300 selected buildings were found to be highly vulnerable if there is a major earthquake.

Quoting the 2011 Census, the auditor said there are 1.477 million houses (166, 000 urban and 1.311 million rural) in the state.

However, construction of buildings and houses in the rural areas (89 per cent of the total houses) is not regulated by any law.

This is a wake-up call for the authorities as seismic sensitivity of the state is high. Seven out of 12 districts have over 25 per cent of their area falling in seismic zone V (very high damage risk).

The remaining parts fall in seismic zone IV (high damage risk).

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