The story so far:Landslides have killed at least 125 people across four north-eastern States this year after the onset of rainfall in April. Almost half of them — 49 confirmed and 12 others missing with little chance of survival — died working on a railway project at the Tupul substation in Makhuam village of Manipur’s Noney district on June 30. The Railways have reportedly blamed jhum or shifting or slash-and-burn cultivation on hill slopes for the tragedy, sparking debates on the tendency to overlook geological challenges and not factor in climate change while executing major developmental projects.
What is the Jiribam-Imphal railway?
Sanctioned in February 2005 as a national project, the 110.625 km Jiribam-Imphal line is considered a vital segment of the Trans-Asian Railway envisaged as an integrated freight railway network across Europe and Asia. The broad-gauge project entails connecting Manipur’s Jiribam, a town on the border with Assam, and State capital Imphal mostly across the fragile hills of Noney district, is expected to reduce the travel time from the existing 10-12 hours to three hours. More than 65% of this project with an anticipated cost of ₹14,322.79 crore has been completed and goods trains reached the Khongsang railway station, 68.605 km from Jiribam, in March. The railways have tagged this project, expected to be functional by December 2023, as its most ambitious and challenging endeavour. The project involves 46 tunnels with a total length of 61.398 km, 16 road overbridges and under-bridges, and 140 major and minor rail bridges. Tunnel number 12 on this line is India’s longest railway tunnel at 11.55 km and one of the rail bridges near Noney is being built at a pier height of 141 metres, the world’s tallest.
Why are most landslide victims combatants?
India’s northeast comprising Manipur and seven other States is the sixth most earthquake-prone belt in the world. The geologically young hills of the region are landslide-prone and heavy rains invariably allow only a working season of six months, somewhat explaining the delay in the Jiribam-Imphal project. The writ of extremist groups also affected the project until the 107 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) of the 11 Gorkha Rifles was entrusted in 2019 with protecting the stretch. A massive landslide triggered by heavy rainfall hit the location of the unit at the Tupul railway yard construction camp on early June 30 morning and the sliding debris blocked the Ijei River temporarily, creating a dam-like situation. According to Haulianlal Guite, Noney’s Deputy Commissioner, 29 of the 49 confirmed dead were combatants of the 107 Territorial Army while 15 were engaged by private firms executing the project and two were railway employees. Movement on the Jiribam-Imphal national highway has also been affected by a series of landslips, an annual affair.
What caused the Tupul landslide?
The Railways have apparently blamed two successive disasters along project sites in the northeast on the traditional practice of jhum or shifting cultivation. The first was the Lumding-Silchar railway, which was breached at 58 locations in May and the second was the Jiribam-Imphal section. Jhum is practised on hill slopes by clearing vegetation. Northeast Frontier Railway officials have been quoted as stating that their pleas to the State governments to stop jhum cultivation near railway formations often go unheard. Amba Jamir, executive director of Sustainable Development Forum Nagaland, said attributing the Noney landslide to jhum was unfortunate as shifting cultivation and landslides have always been a feature in the northeast, a Himalayan region. “There are also established State rules that forbid jhum in given areas and it is the responsibility of the administration to ensure that such rules are enforced,” he said. “But people tend to forget or not question the development models being implemented in such fragile hill or mountain ecosystems. Most disasters are man-made as the designs are not suited to the geology,” he said. Others said projects do not factor in climate change, which has been causing short bursts of heavy rainfall over a small area instead of moderate showers spread over a larger area.
How can disasters be averted?
Researchers have advised the Railways and the government to consult local people for sustainable projects instead of bulldozing or drilling through the hills and leaving them at the mercy of the forces of nature. Local NGOs in Noney said the Railways should have learnt lessons from the Lumding-Silchar project experience to minimise disasters in the equally vulnerable Jiribam-Imphal sector. An audit report in 2009 and a Commissioner of Railway Safety report in 2015 had faulted the Lumding-Silchar broad-gauge project for having been executed without adequate geotechnical investigation of the soil. Geologists and advocates of sustainable development say lessons could be learnt from the extensive rain-induced damage to the Lumding-Silchar track and adopt structural measures for stabilisation and control of landslides
In their Disaster Management Plan of 2017, the Manipur Public Works Department said landslides and mudslides are quite common in the hilly State. “Even at present, mudslides due to the construction of the Jiribam-Tupul Railway line have affected many families in Tamenglong district (Noney was carved out of it),” it said.
According to the Geological Survey of India (GSI), disasters and human fatalities can be minimised if its national landslide susceptibility mapping is integrated with infrastructure development and planning in hilly or mountainous terrain. “In India, the mountainous and hilly areas in 16 States and in two Union Territories in the Himalayan region, sub-Himalayan parts of the northeast and in the Western Ghats are landslide-prone. These areas comprise about 12.6% or 4.2 lakh sq. km of India’s landmass spreading over 159 districts,” the GSI said after documenting 20 landslides in four north-eastern States in 2020. It also said geology, road and railway projects, and unplanned quarrying and construction can turn these landslide-prone areas fatal. The GSI advised structural and non-structural measures for mitigating or preventing landslides. The structural measures involve engineering works for stabilisation and control of landslides while non-structural measures emphasise the identification and avoidance of landslide-prone areas through monitoring and warning systems. Successes of structural measures include Varunabhat in Uttarkashi, Tindharia in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district and some hydroelectric projects under construction. Nainital in Uttarakhand and Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu are the only two places in India where non-structural measures have been successfully implemented through landslide hazard zoning information, the GSI said.