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Express View on Himachal Pradesh tragedy: A slippery slope

The large toll taken by cloudbursts and landslides in Himachal Pradesh is another sobering reminder to respect the Himalayan region’s fragile ecology. At least 50 people have lost their lives as torrential rain pummeled the state in the past three days making the already precarious hill slopes unstable. The toll is expected to rise as many more people are feared to be trapped under debris.

These are not the first casualties this monsoon season. According to the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority, higher-than-normal rainfall claimed more than 150 lives in the state between June 24 and July 22. Relief has begun on a war footing. But it’s time measures are taken to prevent such large loss of life and property in the hills.

Floods and landslides are not uncommon in the Himalayan region. The young mountains are geologically active and the region has a long history of downslope movement of rocks and boulders. According to the ISRO’s Landslide Atlas of India, all 12 districts of Himachal are susceptible to landslips. But the slopes seem to have become more unstable in recent years.

According to the state’s disaster management data, the number of landslides increased nearly six times between 2020 and 2022. Himachal’s Disaster Management Plan ascribes this to climate change and the increase in extreme rainfall events. It’s correct that the average temperature in the Himalayas is rising faster than the rest of the country.

There is also no doubt that short but intense bursts of rainfall have become frequent in the state, like in several other parts of the country. But ecologically-insensitive development has compromised Himachal’s capacity to withstand inclement weather.

In the past 10 years, the state has gone on a road-widening spree. Sixty-nine national highway projects have been approved, of which five are four-lane highways. Roads and highways are important to the region’s economic development. But such projects must be mindful of the area’s ecological vulnerabilities. For instance, road expansion drives rarely factor in slope stability. There is very little planning on what to do with construction debris. Last year, the Himachal Pradesh High Court expressed serious concerns on the “unplanned excavation” of the hills and “poorly executed construction” of roads in the state.

Early Warning Systems that alert people to impending landslides are at a nascent stage in the country. In Kangra, the EWS failed to alert people of a landslide in the first week of this month. Responding to weather vagaries will require paradigm shifts and interventions at various levels. The Himachal tragedy should warn policymakers against delaying such endeavours.

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