Environmentalists in Himachal Pradesh’s capital, Shimla, have called for the implementation of urgent remedial measures after an expert committee set up by the State government recently released its report revealing the main reasons why the hill town suffered major damage during this year’s monsoon.
The State witnessed unprecedented losses as heavy rains in two spells — the first between July 9 and 11, and the second spell from August 13 to 16 — triggered cloudbursts, flash floods, and landslides.
The monsoon that started on June 24, withdrew from the hill State with a delay of 12 days from its normal date of departure, i.e. September 24, after bringing 21% excess rainfall, according to the India Meteorological Department’s office in Shimla.
Experts and officials said the report has drawn their attention to two critical issues, which need immediate attention and course correction. The first is the adverse impact of ‘construction overburden’ or accumulation of old debris on the fragile hill slopes, which is a result of unplanned and unregulated construction activities over the years. The second is the unplanned open drainage system, which causes soil erosion and decreases the binding force of trees.
“The slopes that support the built-up environment on the debris cover were unable to withstand the heavy rains, which caused slope failure and collapsing of the structures along the debris flow path,” said the report of the committee.
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The panel consisted of members from the Himachal Pradesh Council For Science, Technology, & Environment (HIMCOSTE), the geology wing of the State Industries Department, the Public Works Department, and the Shimla Municipal Corporation.
The report presents a gloomy and grim picture for Shimla, said Birender Singh Malhans, 84, an environmentalist and former member of the Heritage Advisory Committee of Himachal Pradesh. “It is important for the government to immediately take steps to save the town. A lot of multi-storey structures have come up, which are not suitable for the hills as they put pressure on the soil and fragile slopes,” Mr. Malhans said.
He stressed the need for a policy that restricts construction of buildings to not more than one storey and an alternative to reinforced cement concrete (RCC) construction. “The point is to build light structures, the weight of which these fragile slopes can hold. It is good that problems of debris deposition on slopes and unplanned drainage have been identified by the government in the report,” he said.
The report also pointed out that the uprooting of the ‘deodar’ (cedar) trees from the almost vertical slopes during heavy precipitation also resulted in the failure of the slopes that supported thick soil cover or debris cover.
“The damage that occurred during the recent rains in Shimla seems to be the combination of depositions of thick debris cover on the slopes in areas like Krishnanagar, Phagli, Shiv Bauri, and Majitha House. By virtue of heavy precipitation, the subsurface material was highly oversaturated, resulting in slope failure and debris flow movement in the region along with uprooting of the tree cover,” said Dr. S.S. Randhawa, the principal scientific officer of the HIMCOSTE and the coordinator of the government-appointed committee.
Fractured and linear structural depressions further helped in enhancing the impact in places like Shiv Bauri, which saw major destruction, he said.
“Unplanned construction on the hill slopes and open drainage systems further accelerated the process of making the slopes more unstable. The prolonged wet spell with a gradual increase in the total rainfall even in the summer months enhanced the saturation level of the subsoil material,” Mr. Randhawa pointed out.
Over the years, rapid infrastructure development has taken place in Shimla, but unfortunately it is mostly unplanned, which has caused environmental degradation, including soil erosion, deforestation, and water and air pollution, said Manshi Asher, an environmentalist with the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, an advocacy and research group working on issues of environmental justice and forest rights in the Himalayan region.
“After the trail of destruction following the rains, the government’s response and media reports emphasised only one aspect: the structural engineering of the buildings. But it is only through detailed geo-hydrological assessments for each slope that land use planning will be possible,” she said.
‘Need of the hour’
Ms. Asher said the need of the hour is a multidisciplinary and participatory exercise involving different government departments, NGOs, environmentalists, geologists and local residents to identify remedial measures. “This will be time-consuming but needs to be started now,” she said.