Flood fury and devastation in Himachal Pradesh

Ashwani Sharma
Once a tranquil northern hill station over-packed with tourists in peak summers, and also winters–Manali looks like a ghost town these days. Scarred, ravaged and battered beyond anyone’s imaginations.For the first few days in July, reaching Manali proved to be a nightmare, and even a horrifying experience.
The road between Kullu-Manali, a sole dependable mode of connectivity to the tourists’ town and beyond up to Leh and Ladakh through strategic Atal Rohtang Tunnel bore the brunt of flood fury in Beas .The river, usually quiet and seamlessly calm turned furious. It washed away everything that came in its way. The swollen river engulfed and breached Kullu Manali highway.
The bridges, hotels, multi-storey buildings got ploughed down as hundreds of vehicles-cars, buses and trucks looked like toys floating in the swollen Beas water. The trail of destruction after unprecedented floods erased all marks of DPR-based development, the physical infrastructure. The roads turned into rivers and tributaries pooled as a sea of unimaginable miseries, devastations and damages.
Till now, 187 persons have lost their lives and property, including public assets, loss is estimated to Rs 8,000 cr. More than 900 roads in Himachal Pradesh are still blocked. Massive landslides, mud slides, rock boulders and road breaches have left the hill population struggling. Hundreds of families have become homeless.
The torrential rains, flash floods and more than a dozen cloudbursts events have adversely hit the state’s tourism industry ,a major revenue earner and source of livelihood .The tourists arrival has dropped the lowest to 5 percent and the horticulture economy is badly battered.
Biggest damage has been caused to the physical infrastructure crucial to state’s tourism and horticulture economy. The videos of a 50-year bridge at Aut-a vital connectivity for the largest population of Banjar and remote areas of Kullu, got washed away in a blink of an eye. Twelve other bridges vanished in the flood fury.
The road connectivity between Chandigarh to Manali and Parwanoo-Shimla-the two lifelines of Himachal Pradesh was completely disrupted. The road between Kullu and Manali was washed away by the swollen Beas even though the towns also got plunged into darkness following disruption of power supplies.
For 48 hours,and even more, the town went without electricity and water with road communication also blocked either by caving in of the highway or massive landslides and rock boulders. The river breached the banks, overflowed on the road and engulfed towns.
The scary videos of cloud burst at Thunag-a important town in Seraj constituency of former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, went viral with gushing water, carrying logs of wood, rock boulders, mud and stones tossed-up everything that came in its way.
But did Himachal Pradesh realise why this huge devastation. It can’t be simply attributed to the climate change or melting of the glaciers. There is certainly a human element and several anthropogenic factors responsible for a heavy devastation due to extreme weather events, triggering the destruction.
Why damage took place only in the areas where development projects like four-lane, NHs, Tunnels, bridges, flyways and dams were under implementation involving major cutting of the hills and road widening had happened generating millions of tonnes of debris and muck. The debris was either dumped in the rivers or dropped down the hill slopes with out any scientific planning.
That leaves no doubt that the kind of development happening in the mountain states in the backdrop of the climate changes enhances chances of disasters rather than risk reduction and adaptation measures. Hill doesn’t need mega four-lanes and there is also a need to put a full stop on big dams, especially in the high altitude areas.
Historic Panchvaktra temple -the most revered hindu shrine dedicated to the five-headed Bhagwan Shiva,built in the typical Shikhara architecture style, got completely submerged though luckily survived. Few drew a parallel between these extreme events with Kedarnath floods in Uttarakhand. “I can say the devastation was of a very high scale. This kind of natural calamity was seen almost after 50 years. Though loss to human lives is not of that scale as witnessed in Kedarnath floods yet every single calamity death is tragic. More than this, those survived this calamity but lost their homes, land, shops ,hotels and properties, have a now struggle to live. The government will do its best in the hour of crisis” Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu said as he camped at Kullu, after reaching-out the affected families.
So why call it a natural calamity if there is clear evidence of human interference with nature and mountains.
Tikender Singh Panwar, a former deputy Mayor of Shimla and climate change expert terms it as human induced catastrophe. The model of development adopted by the agencies like NHAI, the central government and private developers of hydro-power sector, have completely ignored ecological vulnerability factors of the fragile mountains”
The happenings in Kullu and Mandi districts or Shimla, are not solely nature’s fury. A reckless infrastructure development in both urban and rural areas of the mountain regions, especially the Himalayas, is a major contributing factor. This ongoing development has led to colossal losses year after year, affecting assets, roads, bridges, houses, buildings, towns and villages throughout the region.Tragically, lives are also lost during these disasters.
The mountain cuttings and widening disabilities the hills, which becomes prone to landslides. The dumping of debris in the slopes and blockage of drainage systems makes the conditions highly dangerous. The examples like the Char dham highway project in Uttarakhand are enough to send alarms, and serve as an open invitation to disasters, loss of lives and property,he says
There is no effort to follow a sustainable development model for the mountains. This includes careful planning of infrastructure, resource management, and land-use policies to minimize negative impacts on the local hill ecology.
The National Green Tribunal has made several interventions in Himachal Pradesh advising against unscientific dumping of the debris or letting it flow down the rivers or slopes yet this has been ignored with impunity. The debris and rock boulders from the Kiratpur-Manali four-lane have gone down into Beas narrowing down the flow. The dams on the river are also getting filled -up with silt and concrete.
The data available with the MeT department’s Shimla centre clearly suggest that rainfall has broken a 50 years old record in the state. It’s almost 30 percent of the total monsoon rainfall.The monsoon usually remains active between July to September in Himachal Pradesh.
The voices of anger have also come from a sitting cabinet minister Vikramaditya Singh, son of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who blames illegal mining in the river beds including Beas which resulted in the devastation. Those engaged in illegal mining on the rivers enjoy political shelters and put the entire ecology to grave risks. From the destruction, caused by the Beas river in Kullu and Manali it’s evident that the river has tried to reclaim which was taken away and damages caused to local biodiversity.
“The senseless cutting of the mountains to widen the roads ,make tunnels and construction bridges/fly ways without planning dumping of the debris is stupidity of the worst order which the engineers overlooked. It was an open invitation to disasters .We should not blame it on climate change” asserts Avay Shukla, a former additional Chief Secretary.
Shukla, who had also headed one-man panel set-up by Himachal Pradesh High Court to study adverse impacts of hydel projects in the state, wrote in his weekly blog ” one fact is clear – the maximum destruction of lives and property occurred in the river valley of Beas and Ravi and along the two Four-lane arteries ie Parwanoo-Shimla and Mandi-Manali, not on the roads where no development activity happened”
Thus, one of the primary reasons for the devastation due to floods in the Beas river from Manali to Kullu and Mandi is haphazard construction and illegal mining along the banks of the rivers.