The rumbling hills of Himachal Pradesh

In a State where hydro power projects, dams and construction activities are increasing, landslides too are becoming common. Vikas Vasudeva reports on the benefits of the projects and the concerns of the people in a fragile Himalayan region

August 21, 2021 03:15 am | Updated November 22, 2021 09:57 pm IST

The landslide in Batseri village in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh on July 25 destroyed a bridge on the Baspa river.

The landslide in Batseri village in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh on July 25 destroyed a bridge on the Baspa river.

It was a relatively warm monsoon afternoon on July 25 when Arjun Devi, 65, was sitting outside her house, legs stretched out. Her house is located in the middle of an apple orchard in Batseri village in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. It was a picture of calm and quiet when suddenly, Devi sprang up in alarm hearing a rumbling noise. She hurried upstairs. From her rooftop she watched transfixed as boulders came rolling down from the steep hilltop at great speed, not too far from her house. They crashed into a mini-bus on Sangla-Chitkul road, killing nine people, all tourists , Devi learned later. The boulders severely damaged the Sangla-Chitkul and Sangla-Batseri link roads. They destroyed a bridge on Baspa river, on the banks of which Batseri is located. Several mature trees that got in their way fell like ninepins. All this happened in just a few minutes.

“I have never seen such a horrific scene in my life,” says Devi. “The previous day too, some stones fell down the hill, but July 25 was different. When I heard the loud noise and went to the rooftop, I saw huge rocks come thundering down. They fell some distance away from my house. Only when they stopped falling did I heave a sigh of relief.”


This wasn’t a one-time calamity. Nature unleashed its fury again on August 11 in Kinnaur, this time in Nigulsari village. Twenty-eight people lost their lives that day when a State transport bus, a truck, and three small vehicles were completely damaged after they were hit by boulders and mud on National Highway 5. Such was the force of the landslide that the bus rolled down several feet towards the Sutlej river, along with the debris .

The residents of Kinnaur are scared, angry and frustrated. Such incidents are becoming common, they say, thanks to the development model adopted by successive governments. Reports urging a rethink of the development model are frequently brought out but they lead to little change. The beautiful Himalayan region is only becoming more fragile and susceptible to disasters, they say.

A double-edged sword

In the last two months alone, several landslides have been reported in Himachal Pradesh, especially in the tribal districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur which have seen incessant rains. From June 13 to August 12, as many as 248 people lost their lives in various incidents relating to heavy rains. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, who visited Nigulsari to oversee the rescue work after the incident, said the State government would conduct a geological survey of the area.


Jai Vijender Negi, 45, an orchardist at Batseri, says development has become a double-edged sword. He urges the government to review its policy on hydro power projects. “These incidents are a wake-up call for us. The dams and hydro power projects have brought prosperity to the region, but they have also brought suffering. During the construction of these power projects and dams, the use of rock blasting and heavy machinery in construction sites, besides tree felling, have damaged the fragile hills,” he says.

Om Prakash, who has been working at a tourist camping site in Batseri since the late 1990s, says landslides used to occur earlier as well but their number and intensity have increased in recent times. “For the tourism sector to flourish here, road connectivity is key, but I feel that converting single roads into double lanes and more is not a good idea. When roads are constructed, debris is thrown into the valley and falls into the rivers. The government should focus on the maintenance of existing roads instead of opting for unregulated development. Scientific disposal of debris is very important,” he says.

These are not mere observations of residents. In its 2012 State Strategy and Action Plan on Climate Change , Himachal Pradesh’s Department of Environment, Science and Technology had pointed out that deforestation, landslides, land degradation, desertification and Glacier Lake Outbursts Floods are some of the common but critical environmental issues in the Himalayan region. The environment is facing major challenges given the escalation of such issues due to changes in the atmosphere and interferences by man, it said.


Editorial | Another warning: On landslips in Himachal Pradesh

“Himachal Pradesh, though a small Himalayan State, is nevertheless playing a very crucial role in sustaining the livelihoods of downstream areas. The conservation, sustenance of these ecologically fragile regions is the biggest challenge being faced at the moment which can get further aggravated due to financial constraints and limited resources... Therefore, it can be safely stated that climate change will manifest most in Himachal Pradesh,” it noted.

The report also stated that warming, erratic rainfall and rainfall changes, floods, and change in precipitation patterns are commonly observed events or are likely to occur in the region.

In a state of denial

Urni, a tiny village along National Highway 5 in Kinnaur district, witnessed a major landslide in 2014 which resulted in the erosion of several bighas of agricultural land and cracks in many houses. Ramanand Negi, 77, of Urni village, says the signs of ecology degradation are clearly visible, yet successive governments have been in a state of denial. “The key problem is that the government is quick to declare landslides as natural disasters. But these are man-made disasters. In July 2014, a big portion of our village was destroyed and so were several acres of agricultural and horticultural land including the orchards of over 20 families. The livelihoods of people are at stake,” he says. People now live in fear, he adds.


The government gave relief to the affected families, but they have been demanding compensation, Negi says. “The administration maintains that flood irrigation could have triggered the landslide, but we don’t have any natural water sources here, so how can we use the method of flood irrigation? Our village is situated right above the intersection of the flushing tunnel, head race tunnel and two Adit tunnels of the 1091 MW Karcham Wangtoo project built on the Sutlej River (commissioned in 2011). These tunnels were constructed using heavy machinery and rock blasting. We used to feel the vibrations when the blasting was done,” Negi says. He drops his head in despair as he points to the damaged portion of the hill slope.

Sita Ram, another resident, says he was a sub-contractor on the Karcham Wangtoo project. “During construction, blasting was done for digging tunnels in the mountain. Cracks developed as a result, and the soil got eroded. Later, when heavy rain struck the region, there were landslips,” he says.

Several youth from the district hold a meeting at Kalpa to voice their concerns to the authorities over the new hydel power projects coming up in and around the district.

Several youth from the district hold a meeting at Kalpa to voice their concerns to the authorities over the new hydel power projects coming up in and around the district.


Manshi Asher, an environmentalist associated 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, says the climate crisis has exacerbated the frequency and intensity of disasters over the past few decades. “But the most critical factor that gets hidden behind the label of ‘natural calamities’ is the kind of development model that we have adopted. It has led to deforestation, increased erosion and slope destabilisation which not just trigger more disasters but multiply the damage caused. The State Disaster Management Authority report on Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment 2015 stated that 90% of the State is in the high-risk zone. Areas like Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti are particularly sensitive. Yet, the focus of policymakers and government departments is on management rather than prevention,” she says.

The State’s 2015 Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment report , which Asher refers to, reads, “Hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh are vulnerable to landslides due to geological, meteorological and anthropogenic factors. Several devastating landslides have occurred in Himachal Pradesh... The hydro-meteorological conditions and fragile structural fabric of geological strata of Himachal Pradesh increase the possibility of landslides. Anthropogenic factors such as removal of vegetation cover, overloading of slopes by debris also contribute to a great extent. Development activities like construction of roads, tunnels and excavation for hydro projects have further accentuated the problem.” The report was prepared by the Disaster Management Cell of the Department of Revenue.


It adds: “Most of the area under... Himachal Pradesh is under threat of landslides. It is the topographical profile of the state and the extreme climatic conditions which makes it susceptible to landslides. Hazard risk map of the state depicts that the area of the state falling under the three categories of hazard proneness viz. low, medium and high hazard. Most of the area under... Himachal Pradesh is under high hazard.”


There are 932 hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, which include mini, small, large, and mega projects. Most of these projects are in Kinnaur, Chamba and Shimla districts. Asher says there is plenty of evidence on how these calamities are not natural but such evidence is not fed into policy decisions. This is why governments continue pushing for more hydro power projects and four-lane highways, she says.

Protests against projects

Several residents of the tribal districts are now up in arms against the setting up of new power projects. Many assert that the projects severely impact the fragile mountain slopes and cause significant loss to life and property. As Kinnaur continues to bear the brunt of catastrophes, a group of youngsters at Kalpa gathered for a meeting on August 10 to craft a strategy to intensify their State-wide campaign of creating awareness against the setting up of new hydro power projects in the district.

“There should be a ban on such projects. Already substantial damage to the fragile ecology is visible, yet the government in the name of national interest is continuing to play with the lives and livelihood of locals. Today, we have gathered here to discuss the proposed construction of the Jangi Thopan Powari hydroelectric project plant of 804 MW capacity near Jangi village. This project, to be built by SJVN, will impact people and natural resources of at least six panchayats — Spillow, Kanan, Moorang, Jangi, Akpa and Rarang. Our purpose is to create awareness in all the villages about this upcoming project and others as well. Any decision on the commissioning of a project should be based on discussions with the gram sabhas,” says Sunder Negi, a member of the group.

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Negi says the group got in touch with youth clubs of different villages. Through regular meetings, they are conveying these villages of the “ill-effects of power projects”. He believes that people should be aware about the impacts of such projects on water, forest and land and should come forward to speak up their mind “before it’s too late”.

The Jangi Thopan Powari hydroelectric project envisages the construction of a concrete gravity dam of 48-metres high from the level of the riverbed across the river Sutlej near Jangi village and an underground powerhouse on the right bank upstream of Tehsil boundary (Kashang Nallah). It proposes to excavate a circular-shaped head race tunnel of 9.40-m wide and 12-kilometres long using tunnel boring machine. The tentative land requirement for the project is 295.93 ha out of which 270.43 ha is forest land and 25.5 ha private land. The construction of the dam will result in the submergence of about 156.2917 ha of land of which 143.2093 ha is forest land and 13.0824 ha private land.

Abhishek Wazir, 25, of Moorang village says this is a “fight to save ‘Zangti’ (golden water) of Sutlej River.”

Dinesh Negi, 32, from Kanan village, remarks that this is more that that; it is a fight for survival. “The indigenous pine nuts (chilgoza) trees are under threat here. As transmission lines of hydro projects pass through forests, trees are cut. This impacts not only the environment but our livelihoods too,” he says.

“We have to save Kinnaur at any cost, and so we are mobilising the youth. We will make it a mass movement,” says Bharat Bhushan, 35, of Kalpa.

In pictures | Himachal landslip


Jiya Negi, a Kinnaur-based environmentalist and activist, says the entire stretch of the Sutlej is filled with debris that is thrown into the river from construction sites of power projects, dams and roads. No one, he says, bothers to ensure the scientific disposal of debris.

Deputy Commissioner (Kinnaur) Abid Hussain Sadiq says the administration is always there to look into the concerns of people. “The decision to set up power projects is taken in national interest, but at the same time there’s no doubt that the concerns of people are to be understood and addressed. A balance has to be struck between national interest and the concerns of the local people. We are always willing to work towards that,” he says.

A power sector expert and head of the Jangi Thopan Powari hydroelectric project, Roshan Negi, asserts that the construction of tunnels does not damage the ecology as the work is done in a scientific manner. “All the necessary precautions are taken while we construct tunnels. If the environment was at risk of damage, the Government of India would have not allowed the setting up of these projects. However, I believe that there should always be a consensus with the locals before setting up a project. The projects that have been set up and the allied activities have given a boost to the local economy and infrastructure. They have benefited the residents over the years,” he says.

All these explanations don’t make much sense to Devi. She doesn’t know why, but she knows that landslides in the Sangla Valley have been increasing over the years. “For some 30 years it used to snow heavily in this area, but in recent years I have seen more rain than snow. At the same time, many dams and roads have come up and landslides have become common. Our rivers are turning muddy as they carry debris. The government must take steps to preserve our mountains. Development is welcome, but not at the cost of human lives,” she says.

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