Tunnel collapse in Uttarakhand is part of a bigger problem in the Himalayas

Projects like the ill-conceived Char Dham road have made an already fragile landscape even more vulnerable to disasters.

Published : Nov 25, 2023 17:19 IST - 9 MINS READ

EnvironmentVimlendu Jha
The entrance to the tunnel near Barkot in Uttarakhand where the workers are trapped. Photo from November 22, 2023.

The entrance to the tunnel near Barkot in Uttarakhand where the workers are trapped. Photo from November 22, 2023. | Photo Credit: Shankar Prasad Nautiyal/ Reuters

In 2023, the Himalayan region has borne witness to an onslaught of disasters, from the sinking of Joshimath in Uttarakhand to floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh, a glacial lake outburst in Sikkim, and the recent tunnel collapse near Barkot in Uttarakhand. While these events may seem disparate, they actually form a connected narrative revealing the repercussions of haphazard development in the region, particularly in Uttarakhand. The prevailing development model of the Himalaya, spanning from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, poses a significant threat to the ecosystem of the mountains.

LISTEN: The Char Dham National Highway Project translates into incessant landslides, deforestation, and a relentless assault on the Himalayan ecosystem.

The Himalayan ecosystem is one of the most fragile in the world, sensitive to the slightest changes in its identity. The alterations, better described as an “invasion” by the forces of development, often devised in urban boardrooms, do not take into account how anthropogenic activities, combined with climate change, are rendering the already fragile ecology more vulnerable, prone to disasters.

Dismissing a Himalayan disaster, such as a cloudburst or a flash flood, as merely a natural occurrence overlooks the fact that the increased frequency and intensity of these climate events are due to the overall development paradigm chosen for the planet, specifically for the Himalayan region. The geology of most of the Himalaya is unstable and dynamic, and the mindless greed and aggression of planners, policymakers, and government agencies are costing us the Himalaya itself.

Critical mistakes

One glaring example of an unscientific project, singularly responsible for creating ecological havoc in the region, is the infamous Char Dham National Highway Project. Initiated in December 2016, the project aspires to enhance connectivity to the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri—the four dhams nestled in the Himalaya. Encompassing road widening, tunnel construction, flyovers, and bypasses, this Rs.12,000 crore project runs approximately 889 kilometres through the Himalaya. Despite its ambitious goals, the road project reveals critical mistakes and assumptions in its planning and implementation.

Also Read | How a hydropower project threatens the wildlife of Arunachal Pradesh

The project has navigated a legal labyrinth by manipulating and altering laws to facilitate its progress. Even the Supreme Court has played a role in this saga, allowing the bypassing of the environmental impact assessment process mandated for projects exceeding 100 km. A token environmental assessment was conducted but not the one mandated for a project of this scale, as on the books it is not a single project but 53 small ones. This reflects a systemic failure in ensuring compliance with environmental norms.

Debris from tunnel construction is dumped into the Bhagirathi river near Dharasu in Uttarkashi.

Debris from tunnel construction is dumped into the Bhagirathi river near Dharasu in Uttarkashi. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The government also used old forest clearances given to the Border Roads Organisation from 2002 to 2012, and the work started immediately on almost one-fourth of the stretch. The fact that several stretches of this highway fall under eco-sensitive zones—such as Rajaji National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, and many more—indicates that the government either changed the land use of the areas or falsely declared that the highway route was outside the zones. A project that aims to destroy 600 hectares of Himalayan forest is granted a go-ahead without any adequate scientific scrutiny or public debate.

Relentless assault

While a two-lane highway may appear advantageous in theory, on this terrain it translates into incessant landslides, deforestation, and a relentless assault on the region’s delicate ecosystem. A High Powered Committee (HPC) was appointed by the Supreme Court in 2019 to assess the potential environmental and social damage caused by the proposed project and to recommend measures to mitigate the impact. Despite strong recommendations and observations made by several members of the HPC, the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, allowed the project in its original scale and methodology—a 12 metre road with a 10 m tarred surface—in complete defiance of the majority view of the committee. The Supreme Court inadvertently affirmed that a “broader” road was important, ignoring the carrying capacity of the Himalayan ecosystem.

Also Read | Disasters in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand point to flawed development model

Extreme slope cutting, reaching up to 45 degrees, by removing the vegetal cover that is the natural protection against landslides, has been undertaken since then, leading to an average of one landslide a day in the last couple of years. Due to the lack of slope vulnerability analysis, several sections have vertical or almost-vertical slope cuts, which have left the landscape prone to landslides. Already, most of the slopes constructed have either collapsed or never became functional. Despite this, nothing has been done to revise the plan. The government’s focus is to broaden a road, come what may, and fast!

Denuded forests

The biggest casualty of the project is the rich Himalayan flora and fauna. As stated above, the project proposes and mostly has cleared approximately 600 hectares of forest land. With over 56,000 trees being culled, there is now patch isolation and reduced canopy cover, affecting the overall forest area of Uttarakhand, a State known for its biological wealth. The endless felling of trees has created several landslide zones in the last couple of years.

“The biggest casualty of the project is the rich Himalayan flora and fauna. It proposes and mostly has cleared approximately 600 hectares of forest land.”

The Lesser Himalayan Range consists of living mountains, which have a more recent origin in geological time. This makes them inherently susceptible to landslides, and the loss of trees at this scale is making a difficult challenge worse. It is important to note that the actual number of trees damaged due to this project is at least twice the sanctioned amount, taking into account the trees uprooted by fresh landslides caused by construction activity and slope cutting. No saplings can replace the magnificent forests of deodar, chir pine, khair, bel, and other trees along the entire 900 km stretch.

The hills near Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand are almost bare now, with the rampant felling of trees for the Char Dham road project.

The hills near Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand are almost bare now, with the rampant felling of trees for the Char Dham road project. | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

The incessant dumping of debris into streams, rivers, and forests is yet another environmental hazard of this project; the HPC had warned about this in its report. This region is where two of the most prominent rivers of the country, the Ganga and the Yamuna, originate and flow. The majority of north India’s water dependence is on these two rivers, but their health and well-being are completely ignored by the project.

Also Read | Irshalwadi landslide exposes criminal neglect threatening Western Ghats ecology

In spite of witnessing the impact of muck dumping in the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda in the last decade, which increased the impact of flash floods in 2013, leading to the loss of more than 5,000 lives, the government chose not to act. Having travelled annually in the Yamuna valley for the last 20 years, I can see the stark change in the course of the river, along with indiscriminate dumping of debris and soil on its banks.

Twenty million tonnes of excavated soil are moved through this project, in addition to the construction and demolition debris. With the dumping of most of this muck in the Ganga and the Yamuna and their tributaries and feeder streams, the rivers have begun to change course at various locations. Given the unnatural blockages created in the courses of the rivers, torrential rain in the future is going to create a disaster bigger than the one in 2013. The Char Dham project lacks the basic understanding of rivers and ecosystems: the forests, lives, and species around them. It is everything but eco-“logical.”

Flood water gushes down after a cloudburst in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, in August 2019.

Flood water gushes down after a cloudburst in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, in August 2019. | Photo Credit: PTI

Parallel to this pet project of the Prime Minister is another project complementing the disaster potential of the region: the 372-km-long Char Dham Railway project. Estimated to cost Rs.75,000 crore, this project involves the construction of dozens of tunnels, ignoring the geology of the region. Several experts attribute the sinking of Joshimath to the incessant digging of tunnels in the region, along with the hydroelectric power plants that have plundered the mountains.

The recent tunnel collapse near Barkot is not an isolated incident but is rather symptomatic of a more extensive problem: unplanned development in the Himalaya. Human activity or, more precisely, the government’s plan to “develop” the Himalayan region through rail and road networks, large-scale hydroelectric power plants, and so on, has increased the frequency and intensity of disasters in a climate-vulnerable landscape. As a mountain State, Uttarakhand is at the forefront of this unfolding ecological tragedy.

Highlights
  • Including the recent tunnel collapse in Uttarakhand’s Barkot, a series of disasters have struck the Himalayan region, highlighting the consequences of haphazard development.
  • The Char Dham National Highway Project, aimed at enhancing pilgrimage connectivity, has caused ecological havoc, with deforestation, landslides, and damage to the region’s delicate ecosystem.
  • The Char Dham Railway project, involving tunnel construction, has been linked to incidents like the sinking of Joshimath.

The engineering mess

In the case of the Silkyara tunnel collapse, the fact that the weak patch of rock was not identified during the digging process and that the fragile rock formations were not taken into account speak volumes about the engineering mess that this project is. Ideally, in any project located in a high-seismic zone like the Himalayan region, fundamental lessons in geology would be the first expectation. The varying soil types across the region demand a nuanced understanding and engineering approach, which the project directors seem to overlook.

With over 70 per cent of the work completed and only 224 km of road construction remaining, the damage is extensive. The Char Dham road project symbolises the government’s arrogance in attempting to tame the Himalaya. Urgent course corrections are not just desirable but also imperative to salvage what remains of the region’s pristine landscapes. The interconnected disasters in the region demand a recalibration of development strategies. The mistakes made, the legal manipulations, and the environmental consequences underscore the need for a conscientious approach to development in ecologically sensitive areas. Uttarakhand’s delicate ecosystem, a jewel in the Himalayan crown, deserves preservation, not plunder.

Local people and family members of trapped workers wait for news near the under-construction tunnel, days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed. November 22, 2023.

Local people and family members of trapped workers wait for news near the under-construction tunnel, days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed. November 22, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Let the lessons from the Char Dham road project be the catalyst for a sustainable and harmonious coexistence between development and nature. In a world of climate change, we should plan for life, not convenience. The fast road to the Himalaya is taking the heavenly land to hell.

Vimlendu Jha is one of the leading environmentalists of India and the founder of Swechha, a group working on sustainability issues.

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