Jammu: Death of four persons due to massive landslide on Silad-Sherbibi stretch of Srinagar Jammu National Highway (NH 44) on September 12 morning has yet again brought some prickly questions to the fore.
Are these frequent landslides on this strategic National Highway man-induced disasters? Where did we falter? Will they (slides) be a perennial phenomenon now? Is there any way out to stop their recurrence? Are any effective steps being taken to contain this phenomenon?
Renowned geologist of J&K and former Head of Department of Geology, University of Jammu Dr G M Bhat asserts that frequent landslides on NH 44 are certainly man-induced disasters – a direct result of reckless, unplanned excavation for the ongoing four-laning project.
Project Director NHAI (PIU) Ramban Purshotam Kumar, however, does not buy this contention in its totality. He too has his valid counter-arguments as he spells out the problems, which the implementing agency is confronting while executing this crucial yet one of the most difficult projects.
He also shares some of the steps being taken and planned for the future to evade this disturbing and life-costing phenomenon.
CASUAL APPROACH TOWARDS CRUCIAL ISSUE CONTEMPTIBLE
Expert geologist Dr Bhat minced no words while sharing his disappointment with the sloppy approach with which this ecologically sensitive mountain range was being dealt with by the implementing agencies, while executing development projects.
Hinting at the nonchalant attitude of the concerned authorities towards this crucial subject related to fragile ecology of the area which is proving extremely disastrous for life besides incurring enormous financial losses, he says, “Issue has been raised and deliberated in so many stories but sadly to no consequences. It will be just another story as words have so far failed to move (those who are supposed to act to evade man-induced disasters).”
REASON BEHIND FREQUENT LANDSLIDES
When asked to explain main cause of frequent landslides, which devoured numerous lives including four deaths on Tuesday (September 12, 2023) on Srinagar Jammu National Highway (NH 44), Dr Bhat stated, “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 the slopes are cut vertically, the process will naturally induce landslides. To me, unplanned and unscientific excavation is the main cause behind it.”
He refuses to buy the general official line of reasoning that the recommendations of environment impact assessment studies, which precede all development projects as a matter of mandatory norm, guide the execution part on the ground and ongoing projects (including 4-laning) on this strategically crucial Srinagar Jammu National Highway are no exception to this rule.
“I find no merit in this line of argument. Had it been so, the landslides would not have been a recurring phenomenon. They would be having reports yet they were not being followed in right earnest. Precisely, notwithstanding the availability of geological reports, guidelines are not being followed in letter and spirit. Or should we presume, they have been manipulated by the vested interests as we are not seeing any tangible impact of the recommendations (of those reports) on the ground?” expert geologist answers with a prickly query.
WHAT COULD BE IDEAL ALTERNATE?
When asked to share his expert opinion as to what ideally, the executing agencies could have done to evade such a disastrous situation, Dr Bhat, who himself had conducted a detailed assessment study on this sensitive part of Himalayan range, said that he was averse to fiddling with this fragile belt, encompassing all vulnerable stretches of National Highway 44.
“I had recommended that its four-laning from this (fragile) side was not possible. It should have been left as such without any tinkering. At least, in the Batote-Banihal sector, four-laning should not have been done because for that you have to cut mountains. Once that is done, this will, for sure, induce landslides. Ideally speaking they should have done two-lane constructions on the other side of the mountain and this side should have been left with the existing two-lane. But nobody followed that,” Dr Bhat explains.
He further asserts, “And if they have to do it (as per their 4-laning plan), they should have constructed tunnels, where-ever feasible. No doubt, we have witnessed a late awakening on this account as they are constructing a number of tunnels now. Why did they not follow this wiser step earlier? This is what we call “Penny Wise, Pound Foolish.”
First, they have cut the slopes, unsettled mountains and when they could not manage, now they are constructing tunnels after triggering a spree of destruction. We will have to suffer for this folly for the next 50-60 years. Now the landslides will continue to be a recurrent phenomenon and it will not stop.”
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? In fact, then they should have dealt with it with greater care and caution. 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.”