Monday, June 24, 2013

Commentary: Why Uttarakhand Is Crumbling?

By V. K. Joshi (Guest Writer)

The holy shrine Kedarnath is very much in the news. It witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in the recent years. On the morning of 16th June, 2013, as per the newspaper reports, there was a loud explosion in the Gandhi Sarovar, about four km upstream from Kedarnath. Thereafter a huge mass of rocks and mud and water began engulfing the whole valley. The mudslide was so powerful, that it did not spare anything in its wake.
It is not that, that Kedarnath had not witnessed natural calamities in the past! Between 14th century and 17th century, the shrine and the valley were completely covered with ice for four hundred long years. After the mini-ice age was over, the temple re-emerged unscathed but for the striations left by the retreating ice. These were the clues for the geologists to work out the direction of movement and the weight of the Ice etc. later. Similarly, the temple, since its construction, couple of thousand years ago has stood like a light house against devastating earthquakes that have visited the young, high rise mountains.

Situated at an altitude of 3600 m. above mean sea level, in the Mandakini River valley which runs almost north-south, bound by five peaks, viz., 5505m peak, Bharat Kunta peak-6578m, Kedarnath peak-6940m, Mahalaya Paravat peak-5970m and Hanuman top peak-5320m. These form a sort of amphitheatre called as a cirque in the lingua of the glaciologists. A 5040m triangular peak, the Brahma Gupha juts out majestically in the middle of the cirque. The width of the valley in the cirque area (valley head) is six kilometer and narrows down to three kilometer in the southern end. 

Deepak Srivastava, an eminent Glaciologist of Geological Survey Of India, had worked in Kedarnath Valley to study the possibility of avalanches and consequences thereof. Srivastava in one of his papers says that the Mandakini River valley is unique because two glaciers that have separate regimen, orientation and flow occupy this single valley. The two glaciers, Chaurabari and Companion glaciers terminate at different elevations, at the same place. From the moraines it appears that these two glaciers were unified in the past and occupied the entire one kilometer wide valley at Kedarnath. Moraines are the rock boulders of assorted sizes to rock flour produced and carried by the glacier and left behind as they recede. These moraines are well established and held at place by the vegetation for a length of three kilometers up to the snout of the glaciers. The moraines have lots of stories hidden in them. It appears that there were at least four major episodes of glacier recession as marked by the traces of the moraines throughout the valley. In other words, earlier the glaciers had descended down to much lower levels than the present.

Kedarnath Township is situated on a glacial outwash plain. Channels of Mandakini River originate from Chaurabari and Companion glaciers and encircle this plain to meet below the township. The erosion by the stream has been such that it has cut through the water table in the upper part of the plain. Thus constant oozing of water has made the place marshy.

Altogether 28 probable avalanche zones have been identified by Srivastava and his team mates situated between altitudes of 3800 to 4000 meters. One of them designated as R-13 has an average ice volume of 70891m3 with a chute length of 900m and impact force of 84.8tonnes/m3. Here it worth knowing that while an impact force of 10tonnes/m3 can uproot matured trees, an avalanche of 100tonnes/m3 can move reinforced concrete structures. Therefore the planners must always remember that there is no engineering solution against geohazards.

The temple has been safe from avalanches through the centuries. Even the present township of Kedarnath has not been hit by a major avalanche. An acute need for further expansion is being felt. For which the terraces on the left side only, up to Lenchuri village have been recommended by the glaciologists of GSI. Only drawback of this portion is the marshy condition due to deep erosion of the terrace. Development of a proper drainage can take care of the condition and habitats can be safely constructed.

The avalanche prone area is prone to landslides as well. The varying size of lose rock material, right from rock flour to giant boulders, makes this admixture a potent tool to wipe out anything coming in its path, if it decides to move. The marshy terrace, release of water from the Gandhi sarovar due to release of a possible blockade and incessant rains from skies, all must have abetted in the movement of this mass down the slope.

The builders of Kedarnath temple were no engineers, but they had common sense. They chose a spot between the two branches of Mandakini, which was safe from avalanches and was slightly higher than the surrounding country. The structural design of the temple was such that it withstood large earthquakes which visited the area in the past 1000 years. Similarly, it withstood the mass of ice which covered it for 400 years between 13th and 17th century.

Alas, the human greed overcame the sanctity of the valley and the passage of water was choked by the rampant construction, obviously to make a quick buck from the pilgrims. This led to the tragedy.

What has happened cannot be undone. But if the pilgrimage has to continue in the future, the Uttarakhand Government must consider a reassessment of the ground bearing capacity of the valley to allow only essential construction activity, provide proper drainage and think of regulating the number of visitors per day.

Last evening, (21st June, 2013) I was one of the panelists in the TV news channel attempting to threadbare the recent mishaps in Uttarakhand, and one the panelist was repeatedly blaming the hydroelectric projects in the state as the main reason behind the disaster.

Having worked extensively in the neighboring Himalayan state, Himachal Pradesh (HP), I was wondering if that (hydroelectric projects) be the reason why HP isn’t breaking down in to pieces. After all, they too have their share of dams and power projects-like, The Bhakra-Nanagal Project, Beas-Sutlej Link project, Nathpa-Jhakri Project etc. There are many more, but these three are some of the major projects, hence listed here. Amongst these, Bhakra is a wonder of engineering. No doubt, construction of the Dam at Bhakra has submerged a large area, like the Tehri reservoir, but that is inevitable. Personally I am not in favour of large hydroelectric projects, but trust me while such behemoths are constructed no stone is left turned unturned, as far as the safety of the structure is concerned. Therefore, statements that blasting is weakening the Himalayas, dams are obstructing the flow of the rivers etc. sounds ridiculous to me.

Before discussing the ailment of Uttarakhand, a brief glimpse on the development of HP as a Himalayan state will give the readers an insight, how ideal development process works.

Most of the younger generation anti-dam activists do not know that the HP too had its pangs of development. Much before the Giri Project came up, while working in the interior of Sirmur district in 1969, I had to trek 16 km. on a perilous slope where the entire length of the road had been washed out due to incessant rains. Fortunately, my Jeep had gone to fetch dak etc. so it remained intact, but I had to pack my tents in torrential rain and shift the equipment, personal belongings etc on mules, leaving the Jeep’s trailer behind at the mercy of two employees of electricity department.

There is a reason behind this narration. The entire length of the road was washed away, not because of poor quality of construction or because of a dam or because of blasting or because of any possible human interference. The mountain decided to slide down because it was completely rain soaked, the newly constructed road did not have enough ‘weep holes’ on the breast wall to allow the subterranean water to flow out. Thus there was no human hand in the incident and there was case of corruption involved. The road was hurriedly completed because the Lt Governor wanted the remote area to be accessible as soon as possible.

Likewise I have umpteen numbers of incidents to narrate where no one was at fault, no encroachment was made on the path of a river, forests were not touched, yet the mountain slid down.

While HP was taking shape and it was a Union Territory the Government of India pumped in hordes of money to develop the state before handing it over to a regularly elected government. It is not that that the government servants, the contractors and the ministers were very clean people. They did have their weaknesses and did indulge in money minting, where ever they could. But the only positive point was that the quality of construction was never jeopardized.

It is also important to understand the significance of proper drainage in a mountain terrain. Kalka-Shimla rail road, a 96.54 km long, 762 mm wide rail track was laid by the British. It was opened for traffic in 1903. The rail track cuts across 102 tunnels and 864 bridges. To understand the significance of proper drainage, I strongly recommend the readers to undertake a journey from Kalka to Shimla. The giant, stone paved, cemented network of drains ensures that not a drop of water is retained on the hill slope. Since its inauguration, till date the rail traffic has moved uninterrupted on this route, without a landslide. The road running parallel to the rail track, of course does have its share of landslides, but now the mountain slopes have stabilized and as such the number of slides is almost negligible.

A lot of credit for the uninterrupted rail traffic along this route goes to the residents along the route, for not encroaching on the railway land. This is most important and goes a long way in keeping the communication links safe.

Now lets us examine the scenario in Uttarakhand.

As far as the share of natural disasters is concerned the geological and geomorphological setting of both the states is such that both have to share the equal brunt of the wrath of the nature. Yet HP has lesser casualties. Why?

Let us start from North. The holy shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath in Uttarakhand are situated in valleys carved by the retreating glaciers. The valley floors here are made of glacial debris. With age it gets re-cemented and looks solid, but debris is debris, cannot be and should not be trusted for large scale construction of houses/hotels/resorts etc. That is where the Uttarakhand Government miserably failed. They wanted to develop at any cost and now they have to pay the cost in terms of money and people’s wrath. Despite geological Survey of India’s several reports about not inhabiting these two valleys in a big way, permission was granted to builders. In Kedarnath the debris mass began to slide down after rains, because the drainage of excess water was already choked by the houses in its passage. Except the Kedarnath temple’s sanctum sanctorum everything else perished.

The turbulent Himalayan Rivers when in spate cut and scour their convex margins/banks. This is a simple thumb rule. The planners and developers of Uttarakhand left all the rules in the hands of builders and multistory houses came up right on the banks of rivers, that too in a highly earthquake prone area-Uttarkashi. The outcome has probably been witnessed by everyone reading these lines, so I need not repeat the horror story.

No doubt the main culprit was the nature — the heavy rainfall caused it — but the greedy builders joined hands with the nature and made structures at their will or wherever they found a flat piece of land. This should not have been allowed by the local authorities.

As per the met reports more rain is in store. More horror stories will come out. The places like Nainital and Mussoorie are the next hot spots for landslides. The population density of these places is scary and I shudder to think of the consequences.

The Uttarakhand Government should now rethink about its development policies. There has to be a short term plan to open the lines of communication damaged by this year’s mishaps and also some of the roads damaged in 2010. But they have got to think of a long term plan. Since the state is geologically most sensitive it would be advisable to include some expert geologists of GSI or whichever organization the government deems fit. Development on a shaky ground without technical knowhow of the ground can lead to disasters. There are many factors which engineers have to overlook, because of peer pressure. Thus it would prudent to have a comprehensive team of experts to chart out a plan for the future.

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