Debris danger

Print edition : August 13, 2004

Rubble from the landslide that occurred 10 months ago on the Varunavat mountain in Uttarkashi threatens to swamp the town during this monsoon.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in Uttarkashi Photographs: Sandeep Saxena

Debris on the slope of the crumbling Varunavat mountain. Uttarkashi town is seen at the foothills.-

IN the first week of July, the worst fears of the people living at the foot of the crumbling Varunavat mountain, on the edge of Uttarkashi town in Uttaranchal, came true: the first spell of rain brought with it a flood of debris, about three metres high, into their homes. They escaped unhurt as they had fled their homes, something they had been doing for several days at the first sign of gathering clouds, only to return after the sky cleared. Their homes, more than 300 in all, are in the designated `buffer zone' - a half-a-kilometre-wide area near the foot of the mountain - that has to be evacuated permanently. The area, with a population of more than 2,000, also houses commercial and government buildings and continues to throb with life.

The people have been on the alert ever since a lightning strike in September made a huge crack on the mountain and caused a landslide that lasted for a month and displaced over 60,000 cubic metres of debris. A third of the rubble has already come down, damaging several houses and shops in the vicinity, and with the arrival of the rains the danger of the town going under is real.

The first cracks on the mountain appeared during the earthquake of 1991, according to experts from the Central Building Research Institute, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, the Central Road Research Institute and the Geological Survey of India (Frontline, November 7, 2003). But these apparently went unnoticed, and one particular crack, on the Tambakhai side of the town, has been causing landslides for the last 12 years or so, with the debris falling into the Bhagirathi river. Meanwhile more cracks developed.

The charge against the administration is that it made no effort to clear the debris of the September landslide during the dry months. By the time it woke up to the reality, it was too late for any meaningful effort. "The situation continues to be critical and we are trying our best to control the damage potential. The town can be marooned by debris if there is heavy rain. That is why we have asked the residents of the area to move to safer places," said K.K. Pant, the Uttarkashi District Magistrate. For the moment, the poor rainfall has come as a blessing for the administration.

Clearing operations have begun at two of the three critical points, the Ramlila grounds near the main bus stand on the Rishikesh-Gangotri highway and Horticulture Colony. The worst-affected locality is Masjid Mohalla and nothing can be done there. "This portion can't be touched because it can trigger further landslides. We have advised the people living there to shift," says Pant.

Life goes on in the town even as people look out for signs of rain, which could send the debris flowing into their homes.-

Shift where? "They keep us in a hall at Milan Kendra like cattle. This hall does not even have a toilet. Even if we go there, we have to come back to our homes in the morning," says Anjum, a resident of Masjid Mohalla whose family of 18 has no option but to keep spending their nights in fear. "With no compensation and no alternative accommodation available, where do we go?" ask the residents.

In the buffer zone, terraces built to arrest the slide of the debris.-

The people have refused to accept the compensation offered by the government, saying the amount is paltry. Pant pleads helplessness and says it has been calculated on the basis of the guidelines framed by the Government of India. Besides, many residents have built houses in violation of the rules and without the necessary permissions. So even if they occupy a four-storey building at present, the compensation is only for the originally approved one-storey building.

"We have no one to turn to for help except God," says Shobha Ali. Her husband Mazhar Ali, who owns an automobile shop in the Masjid Mohalla area, says they had settled in Uttarkashi after they were displaced from Old Tehri because of the Tehri dam. The family faces displacement once again. "One can live anywhere, but what about the business? How do we earn our livelihood?" he asks. "Setting up shop elsewhere is not easy." "We are waiting for doomsday, waiting to be buried under the debris," says Vishnu Pal Singh Rawat, president of the Uttarkashi Vyapar Mandal.

Residents who have refused to move out because the compensation and the alternative accommodation offered do not match their expectations.-

VIKRAM GUPTA, a scientist at the Dehra Dun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, said "zonation mapping" placed the area under the "high hazard zone". Even the slightest ecological disturbance, such as cutting of the hill for laying roads or digging a canal can trigger a landslide, he said.

He contends that the September landslide occurred as a result of a combination of natural and man-made factors. The rainfall last year was 60 per cent more than the average and water accumulating in the cracks that had developed since 1991 led to a loosening of the soil. This and the digging for laying roads and for constructing an unlined canal by the Forest Department to divert water from the slopes, were enough to cause the landslide.

The Central government has decided to go in for "treatment" of the Varunavat mountain on the basis of the recommendations of a high-level technical committee headed by a scientist of the Geological Survey of India. The government has approved a Rs.250-crore package for the purpose and for the relocation and rehabilitation of the affected people. But the people do not see any point in spending so much money on "treatment" if the area is to be evacuated permanently. Said Mahabir Singh Chauhan, owner of the 30-room Himanshu Hotel in Masjid Mohalla: "Let the debris lie where it is. Once the area is evacuated, how does it matter even if it comes down? Why spend so much on removing the debris now? Instead, they should give us respectable compensation." According to him, while the residents are being taken for a ride in the name of compensation, hundreds of crores is going down as commissions in the name of "treatment".

Boulders in the bus stand. They came down in the September landslide and are yet to be removed.-

Pant, however, says the "treatment" is aimed at preventing further damage and is not just for the short-term purpose of clearing the rubble. "It involves erecting concrete walls to stop the land from sliding further, greening of the affected area and so on. These will help prevent damage in the long run," he says, justifying the huge expense even though the buffer zone has to be evacuated.

Meanwhile, pilgrimage tourism in Uttarkashi, the gateway to the shrines at Gangotri (the orgin of the Ganga) and Yamunotri (the origin of the Yamuna), has slipped to its lowest since the landslide. "We have been ruined. There has not been any tourist inflow this season. Our business has been destroyed," said Mahabir Singh Chauhan, whose hotel has remained vacant all season. Voicing a similar concern, the manager of the tourist rest house of Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam said the tourist inflow had dipped substantially because of the scare. "It is not as though the entire town is threatened, but people are scared to come. Besides, many people think that the road onwards to Gangotri and Yamunotri is still closed, which is not the case. It has been cleared and is functioning," he said. Until, perhaps, the rubble rolls in with the rain.

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