Himachal Pradesh: A tragedy in many parts

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By Chicago 16 Min Read

Shimla: 10 July is a date that will forever be etched in the mind of Shrawan Kumar, 68, a farmer in Sihardi village of Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district. That night, heavy rains triggered landslides that destroyed his home, his fields and roads in the area. In a tragic turn, the mountain of debris on the road near his home prevented the family from getting Kumar’s elder brother, Krishan, who was ailing, to a hospital. He died that night.

“It was a double blow for my family. I lost my 75-year-old elder brother that night. We had called an ambulance but the road was blocked. The landslides also destroyed my 2,800 sq.ft house along with the standing crop on 10 bighas of land,” he recounted.

If Kumar had been at home, he would not have been alive to tell the tale. He blamed shoddy construction of a water pipeline near his home for the landslide.

Adjacent to Solan district, Shimla, the state capital, was brought to its knees. Indeed, the entire hill state has been laid low by the intensity of the monsoon rainfall this year. According to the Himachal Pradesh government, since 24 June, the state has suffered losses to the tune of ₹10,000 crore. The State Disaster Management Authority’s data notes that 379 persons have lost their lives in rain-related incidents to date, while 352 have suffered injuries, 38 are missing and 16,343 animals have died. Over 2,457 houses have been completely damaged, while 10,569 have suffered partial damage; 307 shops and 5,439 cowsheds have also been damaged.

As of 27 August, 160 landslides and 66 flash floods had been reported in the state. The Himachal Pradesh government has declared the entire state a “natural calamity-affected area”. Tourism, a major source of revenue, has been hit.

Social media and local television channels have been in overdrive to capture the mayhem, with visuals of floods, landslides, mudslides, fallen trees, broken bridges, and so on. Recently, the hill state again had to endure incessant rain, which triggered landslides leading to the closure of hundreds of roads. The relentless onslaught has reduced many in Himachal to a state of anxiety.

Shrey Paul Sood, a Shimla resident, said that the damage in the city and other areas this year is “unprecedented”. “There have been heavy rains in Shimla in the past, too, but the magnitude of the damage wasn’t this much. It is also the result of unplanned construction in Shimla since the last decade,” said Sood.

Most major businesses, except shops selling daily essentials, remained shut while students took classes online. Sadly, the disaster has brought out the worst instincts in some who have been looking to cash in on it. For instance, the supply of daily essentials such as milk, bread and eggs, among other items, was hit across the state during the downpour, leading shopkeepers to charge a premium. People who used to charge ₹4,000-5,000 to cut fallen trees were demanding ₹15,000-20,000.

The state’s overworked officials have been trying to restore normalcy but the incessant and heavy rain has made their jobs tough. According to local administration officials in Shimla, many water and electricity supply lines have been affected in the last two months and employees have been working tirelessly to restore them.

What ails Himachal?

But what is it that has reduced Himachal Pradesh to this sorry state? There are myriad factors, say experts, including environmentalists and those working with non-governmental organizations. The laundry list includes climate change, unchecked construction, hydropower projects, deforestation, encroachment of flood plains, and so on. The government, however, claims this is simply a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale.

In response to Mint’s queries, Naresh Chauhan, media advisor to Himachal Pradesh chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, blamed climate change. “It is a natural calamity and we can’t blame it on … encroachment, dams or faulty construction,” said Chauhan. He, however, admitted that the lack of a proper drainage system and construction of national highways in some places had aggravated the situation.

Taking a contrary view, social activist Hem Singh Thakur insisted that the devastation inflicted by the floods in July and August was mostly man-made. “Although week-long rains were usual in the past, the volume of muck and debris carried in the floodwaters this year was a major impact-enhancing factor. The rivers overflowed as a result,” he said.

For instance, Thakur pointed out, the Beas River overflowed due to the dumping of debris generated during construction by the National Highway Authority of India to widen the Kiratpur-Manali highway to four lanes. “The road construction in Himachal is opposite to the nature of the Himalayas, especially the current method of vertical hill cutting (cutting slopes at a nearly a 90-degree angle, which often leads to boulders and debris rolling down), which is a major factor behind the landslides,” he added.

Former Shimla Municipal Corporation deputy mayor and environmental activist Tikender Panwar called the recent tragedies a planned destruction of the Himalayas. “Construction activities, especially near nullahs and rivulets, are aggravating the situation … unchecked construction by the government, private players and the general public on riversides, without following norms, is adding to the problem,” he said. “Also, the rampant legal and illegal mining in the Beas River is causing the river to change course, and this multiplies the flooding in low-lying areas.”

Kulbhushan Upmanyu, noted environmentalist and Green India Award winner, also blamed the dumping of debris from the construction of national highways for increasing the intensity of the floods. “In Shimla, the huge losses were the result of global warming as it reduced the number of rainy days but increased the rainfall intensity. The government should have adopted a cautious approach to development. Instead, we have become more irresponsible,” he said.

The Congress-led state government recently ordered a halt to the operations of stone crushers on both perennial and non-perennial rivulets of the Beas river and its tributaries until further orders.

Stone crushers source sand and rock from river beds, which they crush and then supply for road construction.

In an official statement, chief minister Sukhu said the decision was taken considering the alarming transformation of the ecosystem during the monsoon, which had wreaked havoc downstream in the Beas river basin and its tributaries in Kullu, Mandi Kangra and Hamirpur districts, as well as the Chakki rivulet in Kangra district.

The chief minister’s statement said that the decision had been taken to ensure the safety of human settlements and infrastructure, and to preserve the fragile ecology and environment of the state.

The hydropower factor

One major point of discussion in Himachal Pradesh and neighbouring Uttarakhand is the series of hydropower projects in the two states, which many blame for the havoc wreaked by extreme weather.

There are 23 hydropower projects that are operational in Himachal Pradesh, with a total capacity of about 9,200 megawatts. At least six more are under construction.

“These power companies release water when they feel that the dams won’t be able to hold more, which results in flooding in low-lying areas. There is no accountability or monitoring mechanism while releasing water from these dams,” environmentalist Manshi Asher alleged.

Asher said that the state’s energy department had put the onus of monitoring water release with the hydropower companies and had directed them to form a cell to this end. “But no monitoring cell has been formed.”

Thakur echoed her views and said the dams should have been partially empty before the onset of the monsoons, to accommodate the excess inflow. However, this norm was allegedly more honoured in the breach than in the observance, flouting the much-advertised purpose of the dams, i.e., flood control.

On 18 August, the Himachal Pradesh government issued notices to the managements of 21 hydropower projects in the state for not adhering to safety norms—a failure that may have aggravated the flooding during the recent rains.

The writers approached many hydropower companies for clarifications but they weren’t available for comment. For instance, calls, messages and an email to Nand Lal Sharma, chairman and managing director of SJVN, remained unanswered. SJVN, a power generation company, is a joint venture between the Government of India and the Government of Himachal Pradesh.

Climate change

Himachal Pradesh is not the only state that has faced severe damage due to extreme weather events this year. Neighbouring Uttarakhand has also been battered.

A recent study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) noted that the Hindu Kush Himalayas’ (HKH) cryosphere (glaciers, snow, permafrost) is undergoing unprecedented and largely irreversible changes, primarily driven by climate change. It stressed that the impacts are becoming increasingly clear, with increased warming at higher elevations, accelerated melting of glaciers, and more erratic snowfall patterns.

Mahesh Palawat, vice president of meteorology and climate change at private forecaster Skymet Weather, explained that currently, the country is witnessing break-monsoon conditions. During this time, he said, “the axis of the monsoon trough shifts northwards and stays stationed over the Himalayas, triggering heavy to very heavy rains over the hilly region”.

“However, a warming atmosphere has increased the intensity of rain tremendously. More warming means more energy in the environment, leading to more rain. Moisture availability is abundant in the atmosphere, which causes incidents such as torrential rainfall in a short period, causing damage like what we saw in Himachal and Uttarakhand this season,” said Palawat.

Between 2018-19 and July 2022, according to parliament data, Himachal Pradesh recorded at least 865 deaths due to hydrometeorological calamities, including heavy rainfall and floods.

Mitigation

The authorities have set up fact-finding committees to get to the root cause of the disasters in Himachal Pradesh, but experts say that is not enough and have called for a holistic approach to prevent a repeat and ensure the state is better prepared for such situations.

Chief minister Sukhu said that the environment department has been asked to hold high-level expert consultations with experts from the IITs, NITs, universities and other bodies to identify the factors behind the disaster. He said that the department will also constitute a multi-sectoral expert committee to evaluate the cumulative impact of unscientific and illegal mining.

Asher blamed the current crisis on faulty governmental policies and land-use changes, with climate change aggravating the situation. “This is not the first time that floods or landslides are happening in the state as it is a regular phenomenon during the monsoons,” she said. Asher called for the views of local communities to be taken into account during policy formation and regulation, and for scientific principles to be followed to ensure sustainable development.

Panwar stressed on the need to prepare a climate action plan to tackle future crises and “prepare zone-wise plans in accordance with the diverse topography of Himachal Pradesh. In recent years, we are witnessing higher precipitation in the region and in the last three decades, no efforts have been made to become climate resilient.”

B.R. Thakur, chairman of the geography department at the Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla, called for vertical building construction to be halted in the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region, noting that it is “a young mountain range with extremely fragile” soil structure.

Citing the example of extensive damage in and around Shimla, where he said construction has been unscientific and unplanned, Thakur said, “In the hilly regions, we need to understand the load-bearing capacity of the soil and there should be proper geological investigations to understand the topography and the type of construction practices one should follow.”

“In road construction too, there are several shortcomings in the current methodology … we can’t follow the trend of vertical cutting as climate change conditions can worsen the situation during disasters such as heavy rains,” said Thakur. He said studies need to be carried out before the authorities engage in “vertical cutting of the hills to widen roads.”

“Instead, the bench-cutting format should be followed and it should be ensured that contractors engaged in road construction are well-read and aware of climate change and the other challenges that lie before us in the Himalayas,” he emphasised. Bench-cutting is the process of cutting the slopes in steps; experts say this method ensures stability.

People from across India flock to Himachal Pradesh during India’s searing summers. Indeed, the British loved Shimla so much, they made it the summer capital of India, calling it the queen of the hills. Today, the queendom is crumbling, and unless Himachal acts, much of its glory will only remain as a memory.

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