Jammu: The death of four people as a result of a significant landslip on the Silad-Sherbibi section of the Srinagar Jammu National Highway (NH 44) on September 12 morning has once again raised some touchy issues.
Are the landslides that often occur on this important national highway man-made disasters? Where did we go wrong? Will slides continue to be a common occurrence now? Is there a method to prevent their occurrence in the future? Are there successful measures being implemented to control this phenomenon?
The repeated landslides on NH 44, according to renowned J&K geologist and former head of the department of geology at the University of Jammu Dr. G M Bhat, are unquestionably man-made catastrophes and are a direct outcome of careless, haphazard excavation for the current four-laning project.
Ramban Purshotam Kumar, project director for NHAI (PIU), does not, however, accept this claim in its whole. As he describes the issues the implementing agency is running into in carrying out this important but challenging job, he offers his own legitimate counterarguments.
He also discusses some of the actions being done and those planned in order to avoid this unsettling and deadly situation.
CONTEMPTABLE CASUAL APPROACH TO CRUCIAL ISSUE
Expert geologist Dr. Bhat did not hold back when expressing his displeasure with the careless manner in which the implementing agencies were handling this environmentally delicate mountain range while carrying out development initiatives.
He says, “Issue has been raised and deliberated in so many stories but sadly to no consequences.” He is alluding to the careless attitude of the concerned authorities towards this crucial subject related to the fragile ecology of the area which is proving extremely disastrous for life in addition to incurring enormous financial losses. As words have so far failed to move (those who are expected to act to avert man-induced calamities), it will be simply another narrative.
REASON FOR REGULAR LANDSLIPS
Dr. Bhat responded, “Plainly, the reason behind frequent landslides is man-made as excavation is being done mindlessly by independent agency, whose contractors are cutting the mountains, when asked to explain the main cause of frequent landslides, which devoured many lives, including four deaths on Tuesday (September 12, 2023) on Srinagar Jammu National Highway (NH 44). Landslides will inevitably result from the process of cutting the slopes vertically. According to me, unplanned and unscientific excavation is the primary reason.
He rejects the official line of reasoning that all ongoing projects, including the 4-laning of the strategically significant Srinagar Jammu National Highway, are subject to the recommendations of environmental impact assessment studies, which are required to come before all development projects.
“This line of reasoning has no validity in my opinion. If such were the case, landslides would not have occurred often. Even though they would get reports, they weren’t really followed. Specifically, despite the availability of geological information, rules are not being adhered to strictly. Or should we assume that they have been corrupted by special interests because the recommendations (of those studies) have had no noticeable effect on the ground? Geologist expert responds with a stinging question.
WHAT MIGHT BE THE BEST OPTION?
Dr. Bhat, who himself had carried out a thorough assessment study on this delicate part of the Himalayan range, declined to offer his professional opinion when asked what the executing agencies should have done in the ideal scenario to avoid such a disastrous situation, stating that he was averse to meddling with this fragile belt, which included all vulnerable stretches of National Highway 44.
“I had suggested that it should not be four-laned from this (fragile) side. It ought to have been left alone and unaltered. Four-laning shouldn’t have been done, at least not in the Batote-Banihal segment, since it requires cutting mountains. After it is finished, this will certainly cause landslides. The opposite side of the mountain should have had two-lane construction completed, while this side should have kept its current two-lane. But nobody did that, according to Dr. Bhat.
And if they must (as per their 4-laning design), they should have built tunnels, wherever possible, he continues. On this count, we have undoubtedly seen a tardy awakening, since they are now building a number of tunnels. Why didn’t they take this more sage action sooner? We refer to this as being “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish.”
After starting a destructive rampage, they first chopped the slopes and mountains, then when they ran out of options, they started digging tunnels. The consequences of this stupidity will be felt over the next 50–60 years. Landslides will still occur often from this point on and won’t cease.
With regard to the argument that this phenomenon (recurrent landslides) would be inevitable as this range is part of ‘New’ (Young) Himalaya and thus are vulnerable stretches prone to such disasters, Dr Bhat comes with a sharp rejoinder. “They are part of Young Himalaya – is known to everyone. So how can it be an excuse? They really need to have handled it with more caution and attention. They should have taken more precautions. Blasting is a strictly no-no phenomenon for this vulnerable stretch. They understand each and everything. It’s just that they should have used modern technology and followed excavation norms. Angle of repose should not have been more than 30 degrees but they have resorted to vertical cutting. In this scenario, how can it (landslides) stop,” the renowned geologist questions.
At this point, Dr Bhat further cautions about an impending disaster, which is being induced by unplanned excavation as he points out lack of proper dumping sites. “See, there are no dumping sites. Mounds of landslides directly find their way into the river, which is again not recommended. It contributes to river (water pollution), slope instability, destruction of vegetation, damage to fauna and flora of the aquatic body etc., thus leading to environmental degradation. But who bothers?” he adds.
THE OTHER SIDE OF PROBLEM
Project Director NHAI (PIU) Ramban Purshotam Kumar, however, presents the other side of this problem.
Even with regard to the September 12 incident, he explains, “We (the project implementing agency) had already proposed a bridge over nullah, bypassing that stretch (Silad-Sherbibi stretch) to avoid cutting. To remove all misconceptions, I want to clarify here that this is the road in its original form and we have not resorted to any (slope) cutting here. As regards Tuesday’s incident, it occurred all of sudden although there had been a dry season (no rains) for the past few days. So, we could not find any trigger point.”
“Yes, geologically, we know, this entire stretch is fragile. But we have not touched this particular stretch so far. Even BRO has not resorted to any cutting here. If PWD would have done it in the past, that’s not in my knowledge. Specifically on this stretch given its vulnerability, we have constructed bridges on its two sides (one two-lane bridge on each side) to avoid cutting. Like this, there are many fragile and landslide prone sections, right from Ramsu-Sherbibi, we have an alternate six-and-a-half kilometer long via-duct (bridge),” he informs.
Did blasting during the execution of the project act as a trigger-point for this recurrent landslide phenomenon here?
Kumar responds in the negative to this question. “See, we never resort to blasting in the open areas. It is only resorted to during tunnel construction and that too inside it. Even otherwise, for executing our four-laning project, we are using “Breakers”, which form part of modern technology for excavation purposes. Though we cannot say that it does not have an impact on fragile stretches. But that impact is very minimal, almost harmless.”
TUNNELING OPTION BEING USED TO EVADE LANDSLIDES
“We have adopted a tunneling option in a major part of the fragile stretch (of NH 44) to evade landslides. But in this particular stretch (Silad-Sher Bibi stretch), even tunneling was not feasible hence we opted to bypass it and resorted to construction of viaducts as an alternate mechanism. Tunneling was not feasible here due to the issue related to road gradient,” Kumar further explains.
He pointed out that initially (years back when the project had started) at some places, cutting or blasting would have impacted the stretches. “But when it was realized that it was creating hindrance, we opted for realignment,” Kumar said.
HILL PROTECTION/NETTING BEING DONE
With regard to a query about any Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in place to evade landslides, he avers, “No, there are no SOPs as such are in place here. But yes, once the bridge or viaduct gets completed, we will go for hill protection/netting. That will be done at a later stage after the alternative is available i.e., the bridge gets completed. We have already done it at several places after executing our planned works. Similarly, it will be done at other vulnerable stretches as and when works in progress are finished because before that it will be dangerous.”