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Big roads, big dams & big money- moving towards disasters?

Monday, 29 November 2021 | Ayush Joshi

GUEST COLUMN

In the last 21 years of the state’s existence we have noted a continuous increase in disaster and its repercussions on the ecology and societies in the state especially upstream communities who are bearing the maximum brunt. In certain areas entire villages are buried under muck generated from the landslides that are said to be triggered by the road widening projects which was also confirmed later by the GSI report.

The problems with current form of development be it road widening projects, construction of dams or even connecting rural communities to the highways are the requirements of increasing tree felling , cutting of mountains and the impacts that the fragile young fold mountains cannot bear. The anthropogenic pressure that develops through these developmental activities seems to be unscientific as well as proven to be not fit at the current stage while we are dealing with global warming and climate change as was acknowledged by the Prime Minister in the recent COP 26 held at Glasgow.

The Prime Minister’s most promising 889 kilometre long Char-Dham Road project initiated for its better connectivity among the four sacred shrines situated at 50 kilometres real distance from each other across the state has shown its dangers not just to the local communities but also the threat to national security. Many scientists, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) and various government research arms have proved the project is planned unscientifically bypassing environmental laws. The project was first fragmented into 53 parts and then mis-interpreted to be a strategically important project for safeguards and carrying artilleries during the time of war.

Imagine what the scenario would be if we are at war and with the artillery on the road a disaster strikes (which is happening anyway). For any country the first line of defense is its mountains that keeps a strong shield against its enemies and allows the forces to work by staying tough.

The other side of the picture is number of landslide incidents have increased due to wrong technical planning, as per the Hill Road Manual (IRC) the cutting of mountains should have been strictly at a 20 degree angle which allows the movement of wildlife as well as keeps the slopes stable but in the current case these were cut to a whole 90 degree angle which in-turn destabilised the slopes as well as the ecology, bringing the local ecosystems as well as communities to threat. Enough evidence has proved the project to be scientifically as well as economically not right. It is economically unsound as it will take almost the same amount of money to mitigate the disasters caused by it.

Now the subject is done with the arguments and thus it is important to highlight the Double Lane Paved Shoulder Standard of the MoRTH is being pushed which technical talks about 10 metre tarred surface and one metre shoulder on either sides a total of 12 metre road that requires ROW (right of way) of at least 24 metre and thus the mountain interestingly the same standard (DL-PS) is recently being brought in purview of toll able roads which means that to move across the Char-Dham shrines one may have to pay toll-tax .

Even in the enthusiasm of moving towards technology in the 21st century could have built stronger and disaster resilient infrastructures. We could have planned these projects more sustainably keeping in view the fragility , needs and requirements of the ecology around , the communities where women everyday carry loads of grass on the same road, kids go to school through the same roads and even many saints walk across the Char –Dham. All of them will now have to dodge the fast paced vehicular movement across these roads.

The only way forward could be to develop the roads based on the MoRTH’s 2018 circular with 5.5 metre intermediate road width and keeping the rest of the path natural, letting the ecology thrive as well as allowing movement for walkers and local society. During critical war times the same can be used as is without affecting or damaging the Himalayas further.

(The author is an environmental engineer. Views expressed are personal)

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