Highway blues | High time to conduct EIA of Srinagar-Jammu National Highway

Now the highway has turned into a death trap and is devouring precious lives.
Besides fragile geological, topographic and hydrological conditions, haphazard construction on the highway is among main reasons for landslides.
Besides fragile geological, topographic and hydrological conditions, haphazard construction on the highway is among main reasons for landslides. Special arrangement

Closure of the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway due to landslides and caving in of road surface has become a frequent norm during rains and snowfall.

The 270-km Srinagar-Jammu National Highway known as NH-44 is considered to be the lifeline of Kashmir as it is the main surface link to the valley. Frequent closure of the highway is taking a toll on people as it causes disruption in supply of essential items besides their movement.

We need to understand that 90 percent of the geographical area of Jammu and Kashmir falls under Himalayan range and is prone to landslides. The highway passes through Outer Himalaya to Higher Himalayan range making it landslide prone.

However, Srinagar-Jammu National Highway during the past over a decade has been witnessing frequent landslides. Highway closures have been causing huge economic losses to people and the government. Now the highway has turned into a death trap and is devouring precious lives.

There are natural and man-made reasons for the deteriorating condition of the highway. Besides fragile geological, topographic and hydrological conditions, haphazard construction on the highway is among main reasons for landslides.

Many stretches of the highway in Ramban-Udhampur have become highly landslide prone areas. The highway is mostly based on sedimentary and metamorphic rock sequences.

Before 1947, it was a mountain track on which people used to walk. Dogra rulers took in view the vulnerability of mountains to landslides and only allowed carts driven by horses to ply on carefully levelled surfaces. Subsequently, after 1947, the road was developed and expanded into a full-fledged motorable highway given its economic and strategic reasons.

As per experts, geomorphology of this stretch is most erosion prone due to presence of weathered rock mass on slopes, loose rock blocks, landslide and rock slide debris deposits. After rains, the loose material gets saturated triggering landslides.

However, experts also blame haphazard construction activities for landslides and caving in of roads. “Unplanned developmental activities and set norms of slope cutting and dumping of muck are responsible for frequent landslides on the highway,” says Prof G M Bhat, a prominent geologist.

Landslides are mainly caused due to complex geographical, geomorphic, and geological settings. High precipitation and increasing anthropogenic activities like heavy traffic deforestation, road cutting are other reasons.

Geoscientist Abdul Majid Butt, who has closely worked on various projects on the highway, says the Geomorphology of the area, underground and on the surface, is practically weak.

“The stability of the region geologically is very fragile. No technical investigation report of soil showing nature and substrata, location of ground water table sampling of disturbed and undisturbed soil samples is available. Sieve analysis and hydrometer analysis besides gradation, consistency limits besides natural bulk density and moisture content strength are foreign to present day road managers. Bearing capacity of soil, cone penetration test and soil electrical resistivity test are important to know before undertaking any repair,” says Butt.

“No JCB should be allowed to remove the debris instead manual means to be resorted to restrict damage to minimum. Remember do not disturb loose or compact rock bodies in the area. On this analogy, I achieved cent percent success in Railway Tunnel drilling from Banihal to Gulabbagh, Qazigund in a record time during my posting.”

“Class 4 rock availability in the area needs consolidation and rock concrete for stabilisation with anchor bolts of greater strength.” 

On July 8, the highway was closed after a service road leading to Panthiyal tunnel collapsed following landslides due to incessant rains.

The highway was restored after three days. Pathiyal stretch is the most landslide prone area of highway. To bypass landslide-prone spots, two tunnels were to be built from Ramban and Banihal.

National Highway Authority of India commissioned T5-T3 twin tube tunnels in March this year to bypass the vulnerable stretch.

But following incessant rains, the temporary approach road to the tunnel collapsed. T4 tunnel is under construction and is designed to bypass Panthiyal and join T5-T3 tunnels.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has maintained that the upcoming T-4 tunnel would permanently prevent frequent closure of the highway. The LG had blamed haphazard constructions on highway during previous regimes.

“If I look at past reasons when the highway was constructed 10-12 years ago, a road was constructed in place of a tunnel. As a result, the condition of this highway stretch deteriorated due to landslides.”

Elaborating, LG Sinha said two tunnels had been constructed and one was in the last stage of completion near Panthiyal.

On a suggestion by me during a press conference at Raj Bhawan on July 8 about the need to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway and using Mughal Road as an alternative route, the LG said, “We will consider your suggestions about environmental issues.” 

LG Sinha has been rightly crediting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, for their remarkable contributions to the development of highways and road infrastructure in J&K. The Government of India has been doing much work on highway infrastructure in J&K. 

Earlier this month, construction of a 1.08-km long, 2-lane viaduct was completed in Ramban district on the highway. This viaduct, built at a cost of Rs 140 crore, is situated on the Udhampur-Ramban section of the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway and is expected to alleviate congestion in Ramban Bazaar while ensuring smoother vehicular movement.

There is a need to reduce heavy traffic load on Srinagar-Jammu Highway.  This can be done when Mughal Road connecting Kashmir with Poonch district in Jammu region to Shopian district of the valley is fully developed. The 84-Km Mughal Road was opened for light vehicles in 2009. The road gets closed in winter due to heavy snowfall near Peer Ki Gali and Bafliaz. A tunnel will make the road all weather. However the proposal has been pending for several years.

As a silver lining, the Union Minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari earlier this year announced that a tunnel would be built at Peer Ki Gali on Mughal Road. The Rs 5,000-crore project envisions to make Mughal Road an all-weather road connecting Poonch and Rajouri districts in the Jammu region to Shopian in the Kashmir valley.  It is hoped that work on the project will start soon.

All the good work done by the Government of India especially by Nitin Gadkari on development of the highways across the country needs to be carried forward in J&K also. If roads are to be constructed in fragile eco-fragile areas, EIA must be conducted first.

There is a need to go for massive afforestation, retaining structures, and slope reinforcement to minimise landslide risks. At many places around the world, underwater roads are being constructed. We need to make use of technological advancements to ensure smooth surface connectivity. Highways are lifelines and must be maintained scientifically. 

Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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