Poor Engineering Practices in Four-Laning of Srinagar-Jammu Highway

The Srinagar-Jammu Highway was initially designated as National Highway one (NH-1) and was looked after by one of the units of Border Roads Organisation – the Beacon. To maintain this road was a real test of patience and wisdom of the organisation and the travellers especially during winters.

Travellers getting stuck would spend days together on the road and at times without adequate arrangements of food. Women and children would be the worst casualty. Nashri, Khoni-Nallah, Panthial and Shaitani-Nallah would haunt the travellers.

I in my childhood have travelled on the bypass road of the Nashri slide area which passed through the area where Baglihar dam now exists. The bypass road was so narrow and risky that travelling on this road was next to suicide. People would cry and shriek of fear at certain spots.

Now when the technology has advanced and engineering has taken a leap in multiple ways, road construction in such areas has become a common feature now. Tunnelling has eased the job for engineers because it provides a good and easy rescue while encountering the mountains.

It is said that when the tenders were floated for this ambitious project of four laning of this highway, which is now NH-44; there was poor response owing to the topography. It took four years for National Highways Authority of India to finalize the tendering process.

Somehow the process got finalised and we see the work in progress. For the easement of the process and quick accomplishment of the job, the project has been divided into many sections like Jammu to Udhampur, which has been completed, Udhampur-Chenani Section (from 67 km to 89 km) and Nashri-Ramban (from 130 km to 151-km).

Ramban to Banihal (from 151-Km to 188-Km, Qazigund to Srinagar (which is almost complete). However, what pains a common man is the way the work is being executed. In its present condition it has posed a threat to the forests, to the people living on these mountains, to the river ecology, and on the whole environment.

As a standard engineering practice a job of such nature has a set protocol to follow. There are two different situations where you decide the practices for execution. One where there is no road and the other is expansion of an existing one. Both conditions have two different engineering protocols to follow.

The reckless and unplanned cutting of mountains which sans the standard engineering practices, designs and norms in vogue has jeopardised the lives of scores of people inhibiting the areas lying on the top of these mountains.

The cutting of mountains without following the set engineering norms and standard practices has caused the fissures on the mountain ridges up to the higher contours which locals blame can lead to the disintegration of these mountains. Baglihar dam has caused the rise in the water level along upstream of the Chenab river which caused the erosion of the mountain foot thereby endangering the whole area. Voices have been raised against the same.

Proper construction equipment and techniques are critically important for minimizing erosion from roads during and after the construction. There are clear indications that approximately eighty (80) percent of the total accumulated erosion over the life of the road occur within the first year after construction. Of that, most of it is directly linked to the construction phase.

In order to keep erosion during the construction phase to an absolute minimum, four elements must be considered.

1. Keep construction time (exposure of unprotected surfaces) as short as possible.

2. Plan construction activities for the dry season. Construction activities during heavy or extended rainfall should be halted.

3. Install drainage facilities right away. Once started, drainage installation should continue until completed.

In the recent past we have seen the slides coming down at various places along this road causing the closure of highway at many places. According to expert opinion continuous rainfall of a day or two can trigger heavy landslides on the highway between Ramban-Bahihal and Chenani–Udhampur and can stop traffic movement for weeks together. This has proved now.

The 37 kilometre road stretch between Banihal and Ramban is already a landslide and shooting stone prone area. Highway expansion is going on without any precaution and proper management has multiplied the chances of land-slides blocking the road. It seems the companies executing the job have ignored the safety part and have no plan ready to tackle the weather vagaries.

As a standard engineering practice prior to the construction activity the design information has to be moved from the plan to the ground. This is accomplished by staking. According to Dietz et al., 1984; Pearce, 1960 slope stakes are an effective way to insure compliance with the design standards and to keep soil disturbance to an absolute minimum. Various staking methods can be employed.

The effect of improperly starting the cut as marked by the slope stake can prove detrimental. Starting the cut too high results in excessive excavation and side cast. Starting the cut too low leaves an overstepped cut bank.

In addition the method and equipment used in road construction is an important economic and design factor in road location and subsequent design.

The lush green forests which besides being the wealth of the state provides home to n number of wild fauna of different species. In addition these forest are oxygen bank and carbon sink. Eroding these forests and causing the trees to fell is no wise engineering. These forests have taken ages to come up and are now destroyed in a single stroke of the machines deployed for widening of the road.

The problem is that the companies having taken over the job have sub-let small stretches to the local contractors for their relief and easement. These local contractors are doing everything possible to get the job finished as early as possible in order to grab the next job without any regard to the engineering practices.

This has posed a threat to the environment as a whole. The way they undertake the job has given rise to many problems. The dust emanating from their work spots has polluted the whole environment to the extent that is difficult to stand in a nearby place. The ambient air quality has worsened beyond the levels of human consumption. Since the work sites are falling on the road which is also the only link to lead the travellers to the Valley. This has caused more challenges. Usually there are alternate service roads and travellers don’t face any difficulty.

The other challenge is that there are numerous villages and small hamlets inhabited by scores of people all along this road. The dust degrades the air quality and these poor people are subjected to many health issues. Children and old are worst sufferers.

Living in places locked by mountains renders the dispersion levels very low. Therefore the dust so emanating from these work sites looms over their heads always and these poor fellows breath in the same air. There have been chest related problems increasing among these people every passing day.

The other problem is that the muck and debris is openly carried and dumped into the rivers of Chenab and Tawi which has damaged the river ecology on the whole. Despite the strict instructions from various controlling authorities the process continues unabated. This also is a serious issue.

The construction of rail track going on in the same forest areas having maximum tunnels has multiplied the problem. The muck and debris which comes from construction of these tunnels are also reportedly dumped into the open Nallah and other local rivulets. This has increased the dimensions of the problem.

The excavation work has been allotted to various agencies and sub contractors on December 28, 2015 on Udhampur-Chenani section and was started in February 2016 and on Nashri-Ramban section, in April 2017.

The District Magistrates of Udhampur and Ramban district have approved 15 dumping sites in the twin districts for depositing the debris. But it has been found that the contractors dump the debris at places convenient to them. This has caused the problems for not only the people living around but to the river ecology as well.

In this connection cases have been filed before various authorities including National Green Tribunal (NGT). In a petition filed by one Amresh singh resident of Ramban against rampant dumping of soil in Chenab and Tawi Rivers and to restrain the authorities from throwing debris in the water bodies while constructing the stretch of Jammu-Srinagar Highway between Udhampur and Banihal.

The NGT directed Gamon India Private Limited, the company executing four laning work of Udhampur-Banihal stretch, to file the affidavit before the tribunal and explain why earth is being persistently deposited along the Tawi and Chenab rivers in Udhampur and Ramban districts.

In its reply, the company, through its Managing Director, filed before the tribunal that these are local sub-contractors, given excavation works on the persistent demand of District Coordination Committees, who are “violating the directions of the tribunal and not the company”. 

Accordingly, taking strong exception to alleged violation of its orders on dumping of debris of four-laning of Srinagar-Jammu highway from Udhampur to Ramban, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has issued show-cause notices to local sub-contractors, and sought personal appearance of sub-contractors and issued show-cause notices to them.

The Tribunal Qoram including its chairperson Justice Swatantar Kumar, judicial member Justice Raghuvendra  S Rathore, and expert member Ajay A Deshpande on December 7 2016 heard the case titled Amresh Singh v/s Union of India and others.

Advocates Swarn Kishore Singh and Muhammad Yousuf listed the application before the tribunal for hearing.

After listening to the applicants and respondents in the case, the NGT issued notice to local sub-contractors, who were also present in person, asking them to show-cause why they should not be directed to retain in (sic) civil imprisonment and why their property shouldn’t be attached for frequent violations of the Tribunal guidelines.

The NGT also directed Secretary, Environment and Forests, Jammu and Kashmir, Managing Director NHAI, responsible officer from MoEF to file their affidavits in the case.

In a fresh application Singh has alleged that after the initial order was passed by the tribunal, the dumping of muck and debris was stalled for a month. However, such indiscriminate dumping in the two rivers has started again. The plea filed through Swan Kishore Singh, said that the work has started in a reckless manner. The petitioner has alleged that ‘State of Pollution’ on the high way was such that sometimes even during the day vehicles have to switch on their headlights to see through the dusty road.

The National Green Tribunal has directed Jammu and Kashmir government and state pollution control board to test samples of ambient air quality in the entire construction stretch of Udhampur-Banihal highway after a plea alleged air pollution in the area.

A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar asked the state environment department and Jammu & Kashmir Pollution Control Board to submit joint status report and apprise it whether the conditions stipulated in the environmental clearance granted to project proponents were being adhered to or not.

The bench in its order dated Jan 5, 2017 ordered “In the meantime, we direct the Jammu & Kashmir State Pollution Control Board and the Department of Environment of the State government to submit a joint status report to the analysis of the ambient air quality in the entire construction stretch when the work is going on.

The samples should be collected at least on three different occasions and a composite analysis report should be submitted to the tribunal. The team will also offer its comments as to whether  the environment clearance granted to the project proponent is being adhered to strictly and whether it has also provided for all the measures to be taken for the protection of air pollution and pollution of river Tawi and Chenab.’

In response to the said NGT order the State Pollution Control Board carried out the recording of ambient air condition at different locations along the Udhampur-Banihal stretch which revealed that respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) levels in the air are much higher from the prescribed permissible norms of 100 ug/m3.

In its interpretation Dr Bilquees Siddiqui, Scientist-C of State Pollution Control Board said that such higher levels of RSPM can cause multiple health problem among the people exposed to such environmental conditions. According to her the dust particles can penetrate through lungs and find way to blood stream which has the cumulative effect resulting in carcinogenic effects as well as can cause other respirative ailments.  

In yet another order dated January 18, 2018, the National Green Tribunal appointed a committee to inspect the status of dumping of soil in Chenab and Tawi rivers for construction on a stretch of Udhampur-Banihal highway in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this connection a bench headed by acting Chairperson NGT, Justice U D Salvi constituted a committee comprising a senior scientist from the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests and Shimla-based Himalayan Forest Research Institute.

It can be hoped that an earnest action by the NGT in this case can prove a milestone by restricting the executing agencies from violating the set norms, degrading the general environment and playing with the lives of the innocent people involved directly or indirectly. One can also hope that the set engineering practices and procedures are followed strictly while cutting the environmentally fragile forests and mountains for expansion of the highway.

Dr Zulfikar Siddqui is an engineer by profession