Uttarakhand's Roads Of Ruin

05/07/2016 5:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
UTTARAKHAND, INDIA - MAY 1: Two wheeler passing through the thick smoke due to the heavy forest fire at Godkhyakhal near Pauri, on May 1, 2016 in Uttarakhand, India. Two Indian Air Force (IAF) choppers began spraying water over the burning forests in Uttarakhand on Sunday morning. Major forest fires raged across Uttarakhand even as two Indian Air Force (IAF) choppers have begun spraying water to extinguish the flames. Presently, some 5,000 workers -- including 3,000 daily wagers -- are engaged in putting out the fire. More than 2300 hectares of forest have been gutted in the fire since it was first reported in February this year. Dry winters and soaring temperatures are blamed for the fire that has affected all 13 districts of the state. (Photo by Arvind Moudgil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)


A freshly constructed road in central Uttarakhand. (Photo: Mukesh Rawat)

Tourism is supposedly the lifeline of Uttarakhand's economy, and almost 90% of it is dependent on roads. Yet, every year, come monsoons, all the major as well as subsidiary routes are either washed away, badly damaged due to surface runoff or remain blocked for days.

This is not a phenomenon limited only to the higher altitudes of Garhwal where big landslides are common. The problem extends to districts like Almora, Nainital, Bageshwar and others.

While there are times that we are no match for nature's fury, many problems in the region are man-made and stem from our lackadaisical attitude -- right from conducting surveys for new roads to maintaining them once they are constructed.

The yearly loss in terms of property can be ascertained from the government's own admission that about 14,000km of motor roads and 1,000km of bridle paths were damaged during the monsoon of 2010, 2011 and 2012 in Uttarakhand. To get these roads repaired, the Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2013-14 urged the Planning Commission to grant a "comprehensive road replacement package" amounting to ₹800 crore per annum.

The tragedy in Uttarakhand is that scarcely any scientific study of the terrain is conducted while commissioning a road.

So, why is it that the same problem gets repeated year after year?

First, right from the time when Uttarakhand emerged as a new state, the network of roads increased manifold. While some were built under central and state government schemes, several connecting roads were constructed using the funds available to MPs and MLAs for their constituencies. The tragedy in Uttarakhand is that scarcely any scientific study of the terrain is conducted while commissioning a road. There is no assessment to find out if a proposed area is suitable for road construction or not. Little attention is paid to factors like load-bearing capacity of the soil, slope, composition of the hill, water-holding capacity, vegetation, porosity etc. All these are important factors that ultimately decide the fate of the bare mountains once a road is dug out.

Secondly, engineers rarely register their physical presence on site. This leaves the playing field open to for contractors to do as they please. To save time and money, the road is often dug in a manner which joins the two end points in the shortest possible way --often with complete disregard to the geographical factors mentioned above.

Thirdly, it is a common sight in the hills that wherever a new road is being dug out, the debris is dumped along the hillside. This blocks the natural drainage of the hill. During heavy rains, the water thus seeps in the barren hill to an extent that it often results in landslides.

The massive landslide in Nainital in 1880 which left 151 people dead and missing is a classic example of this.

Narrating the events of the catastrophe, the historian C. T. Atkinson writes in the Kumaon Gazetteer:

"...the roads were injured, the water-courses choked, and there was a general saturation of the soil in all places where the loose debris of rotten shale allowed the water to penetrate. There was much clearing of new sites during previous year, and the builders did not always provide for the derangement of natural drainage channels. In many places the water was allowed to sink into crevices in the hill and find new outlets for itself, and this it did with a vengeance."

Natural drainage was important then, well over a century ago, and perhaps it is far more important today.

The drains that do exist are so poorly maintained that they may as well not be there.

Fourthly, the absence of drainage along the road after it is fully constructed exacerbates the problem many times over. Travel anywhere in Uttarakhand, and the one common planning blunder you'll see everywhere is that even all-weather roads rarely have a drain running parallel to the road to carry the excess water, and thus minimize surface run-off. The drains that do exist are so poorly maintained that they may as well not be there. Clogged with weeds and garbage of all variety these cosmetic drains end up aggravating the damage instead of preventing it.

If the above factors were taken into account during the construction and maintenance of roads, crores of funds that are spent on replacement and reconstruction could be used for other developmental projects.

Three years after the Kedarnath disaster are we ready for a course correction?

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