Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

Uttarkashi is in the grip of fear as the Varunavat mountain on the edge of the town has cracked up and may collapse on it any time.

Purnima S. Tripathi in Uttarkashi Photographs: Sandeep Saxena

THE ancient religious centre of Uttarkashi in the hills of Uttaranchal faces a crisis of existence. The Varunavat Parvat (mountain) on the edge of the town began cracking up on September 24 and now threatens to bury the town. Three huge cracks, running from the top to the foothills, and many smaller cracks have caused massive landslides, displacing over 15 per cent of the population and burying under debris over 90 per cent of prime commercial area. The Rishikesh-Gangotri highway running via Uttarkashi has been destroyed.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that experts are clueless how to tackle the situation, which could turn catastrophic once it starts raining. There is a huge mass of debris deposited on the mountain slopes, caught between uprooted trees, which will be washed down, swamping the town. The administration continues to be in the dark about the potential danger, and people continue to live under a shroud of dust kicked up by the cracking mountain and the nagging fear that the mountain may crumble on them any day.

"It is a situation that has not been encountered before. There have been landslides before, but this time it is happening without rain and it has continued for so long," said District Magistrate K.K. Pant, who is working from a camp office as his office had to be evacuated. He said the administration had evacuated as much of the area as it could and the police and paramilitary forces are on round-the-clock vigil, but in the absence of expert advice on the extent of the problem the administration is handicapped in taking preventive steps. "Multidisciplinary expert teams have visited the city but so far no concrete suggestions have come. We would like to know how big a danger it is and how much of the town we should evacuate, besides how to handle the problem of the debris, which poses a bigger danger than the ongoing landslide," Pant said.

According to landslide experts from the Central Building Research Institute, IIT Roorkee, the Central Road Research Institute and the Geological Survey of India, the mountain had developed cracks during the earthquake in 1991, which had its epicentre near Uttarkashi. No one had noticed them then. One particular crack had been causing landslides for the last 10-12 years on the Tambakhai side of the town, but the problem did not get the attention it deserved because it was a forest area and the debris fell in the Bhagirathi river.

Meanwhile, water kept getting accumulated in the cracks, loosening soil. A lightning strike around September 24 is said to have caused a huge crack, running the entire height of the mountain, triggering a landslide. Since then the number of cracks has increased and now it looks as though a big chunk of the mountain could come crumbling down any moment. Besides, the accumulated debris on the slopes poses a grave danger to the town. "About 40,000-50,000 cubic metres of debris is lying on the upslope.

The area is completely unstable due to presence of several cracks, some of which are more than a metre deep... . The debris has accumulated on the gentle slope because of the temporary support of uprooted trees and dense vegetation. To avoid further destruction of the city, the accumulated slide mass has to be removed," said a report prepared by a team from the Central Building Research Institute, which visited the site on September 30 and October 1.

But the team, led by landslide expert Dr. S. Sarkar and including Dr. P.K.S. Chauhan and D.P. Kanungo, opined that "manual removal of the debris was not feasible considering the continuous flow of debris from the uphill slope, the volume of debris and the steepness of the downhill slope". It noted that even mechanical removal was not feasible because an "access road for the machinery will have to be built, which would involve cutting on the steep slope, which may aggravate the problem." The team finally decided that the best course would be to leave things as they are. "The situation was assessed carefully and the team was of the opinion that the accumulated debris should come down naturally, without any interference," the report said.

Now the situation is grim and there is nothing that can be done, except wait for the "problem to abate", said Pant. There have been no loss of lives because of the prompt evacuation of the area by the administration, but over 15 per cent of the population has been displaced and 90 per cent of the commercial activity in the town has come to a halt.

The Rishikesh-Gangotri highway was the hub of commercial activity in the town. There were multi-storey hotels on the highway, including a three-star hotel, which have been destroyed. The bus stand and the taxi stand on the highway are buried under debris as are many houses and shops. The colonies that have been evacuated include the Collectorate Colony (of government officials) and those in the prime residential area on Bhatwari Road. Areas that have been wiped out or face the risk of destruction include Ramlila Ground, Masjid Mohalla and Horticulture Colony. As a precautionary measure, several areas, including those that house the treasury office, the State Bank of India office and the Cooperative Bank, have been evacuated.

LIFE has been one big slide to suffering for the displaced people. Families living in relief tents have had to go without food for days. The administration has made arrangements for relief, still relief has not always reached the needy. As many as 46 families, comprising 155 people, had been without sufficient food since they took shelter in the Puri Khet relief tents on September 24. They were making do with whatever they could manage to get from the residents of the area, until an NGO working for the welfare of animals came to their aid. The Jai Ma Lok Vikas Pashu Sewa Samiti is feeding these hapless people even as Pant claims that "we are erring on the side of being too liberal".

The administration has announced Rs.1,000 as compensation per family for the displaced, but it is given only to those who possess valid identity cards. The cards are not easy to get and many families have been denied even this meagre amount. Mujid Ansari and his family, residents of Indra Colony, live in tents in the Puri Khet relief camp. With six members to support and his tailoring shop shut, Mujid does not know how he will survive. The fact that most of those living in the relief camps are daily-wage earners, has compounded the problem because they have nothing to fall back upon.

Without a livelihood what will happen to them once the government and other agencies stop relief work. Twenty families, with 100 people, at a camp at the Goswami Ganesh Dutt Vidyalaya, found themselves without food one day after the State Bank of India, which had adopted the camp, abandoned the relief work. Pant, however, refutes the charge that relief is inadequate. "We have made arrangements for everyone to eat at the Mahila Milan Kendra," he says. The problem, however, is that people living in camps that are far away from this centre find it difficult to come all the way for food.

Even the camps may not be safe once the rain comes and brings with it the debris. The people are performing yagyas and poojas to appease the "hill God" and to ward off the "fury of the Goddess". In Uttarkashi, believed to be Siva's abode in the north, the people are hoping that if human effort fails, divine intervention will save them.

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