As efforts to rescue 41 workers trapped in a tunnel near Silkyara in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, remain weeks away from completion, concerns arise once again about the trajectory of infrastructure development in the Himalayas. The question arises whether the current approach of expanding roads, extensive construction of hydropower projects, and an unchecked emphasis on tourism truly constitute a sustainable model of development.
- Important Geophysical Phenomena
- Water Resources
- Physical Geography
- Environmental Pollution and Degradation
- Biodiversity Hotspots
The Uttarkashi tunnel collapse has thrown light on the major flaws in the infrastructure development in the Indian Himalayan Region. Comment. (10 marks, 150 words).
Issues in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR):
The ongoing Char Dham Project, involving the construction of all-weather roads by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in Uttarakhand to connect the religious pilgrimages of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath, and Kedarnath, highlights two major issues in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR).
- One crucial aspect is the development model itself and, specifically, determining the carrying capacity of the IHR.
- Equally important are the procedures for seeking environmental clearances, the disregard for safety protocols, and the need for a new approach to architecture for constructing and monitoring infrastructure projects in the region, if they are deemed necessary.
Faults in the current model of development of IHR:
Lack of consideration of the geographical domains:
- A significant issue with this undertaking lies in the failure to acknowledge that the Himalayas constitute the youngest mountain range and are still evolving.
- Geological and geotechnical studies unequivocally indicate the precarious nature of this project, marked by inherent dangers leading to fatalities.
- The Main Central Thrust of the Himalayas, passing a few kilometers north of the incident site, has been identified by scientists as an area highly susceptible to earthquakes, featuring frictional shear rocks. Constructing within this zone is inherently perilous.
- The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has recently announced plans to conduct a thorough inspection of 29 tunnels across the country to enhance safety and prevent accidents. It is paradoxical that such enlightenment occurs only when the lives of 41 workers are jeopardized, exposing the habitual negligence and inactivity of the bureaucracy.
Construction and Projects:
- The unwarranted haste in executing constructions and projects in the region has resulted in neglecting even the fundamental principles of mountain construction codes.
- The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not been treated with due seriousness. For instance, the Char Dham Project, spanning approximately 900 km, should ideally undergo a single EIA.
- However, the project was divided into 53 sections, allowing for a less comprehensive assessment within a smaller region. This fragmentation reduces the perceived impact compared to evaluating the project as a whole ecosystem spanning 900 km.
Changes happening in the IHR:
- The IHR is currently undergoing a transformative phase, and unfortunately, the driving force behind this transformation stems from new geographies.
- There are spatial and temporal changes that extend beyond the realms of Himalayan aesthetics, culture, and architectural typologies.
- Mere integration with broader regions is not a sustainable approach. Month after month, the IHR is confronted with monumental and irreversible tragedies.
Efforts and Initiatives in this regard:
- The Supreme Court of India has already taken cognizance of the matter regarding carrying capacity in the Himalayas. It is now imperative for the apex court to actively promote a dialogue on this issue.
- In the current context, the construction of the Atal tunnel in the Kullu, Lahaul & Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh is noteworthy.
- The construction company involved was exceptionally diligent in implementing safety measures, resulting in no reported casualties during the construction process. Workers were not permitted to enter the tunnel unless all safety protocols were meticulously followed and verified.
- Carrying capacity should not be confined solely to the number of people an ecosystem can support; it must also encompass the overall carrying capacity of the IHR from an infrastructure perspective.
- Questions need to be addressed, such as how many hydropower projects, the extent of tourism, the permissible number of roads, and the acceptable degree of road widening.
- Additionally, considerations should be made regarding the limits on mountain excavation and the disposal of debris into water ecosystems.
- There is a need to adopt international safety protocols and monitoring procedures. A new legislative framework, allowing for public oversight of these projects and ensuring the inclusion of geological experts at every stage, is essential.
- Local communities should play a vital role in these monitoring structures, adhering to stringent protocols. Additionally, civil society groups and community-driven organizations should be actively involved.
Regarding the Himalayas, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) must recognize that they are constructing roads on actual soil and mountains, not merely on drawing boards in their offices. Both the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) adhere to better construction protocols, incorporating a specific period for stability. Conversely, the undue emphasis on meeting targets without ensuring stability and safety standards is exacerbating the region’s susceptibility to disasters