The shocking visuals are back.
In July, it was vehicles bobbing away in turbulent river waters and roads being eroded irreparably in real time.
This time, in August, it is multi-storey houses made of cement and concrete collapsing like a house of cards, taking whole slopes down to the ‘nullah’ along with them.
Yes, I am talking of Himachal Pradesh and the weather woes that just do not seem to end in this once pristine Himalayan state. In the past few days, close to 80 people have lost their lives in weather-related incidents and the state has suffered losses running into upwards of Rs 10,000 crores. It may take upto a year to recover from them and completely get back to ‘normal’.
So, what has caused such destruction and why were the authorities not prepared for it?
Several factors have led to the current state in Himachal Pradesh. One of the foremost is unregulated urbanisation and concomitant issues. Roads with several lanes have been built in fragile Himalayan terrain; the model of roads built in cities located on flat topography has been replicated in a completely different landscape, leading to widespread damage.
Tunnels have been dug with impunity; dynamite and other potent explosives have been used to ‘clear’ away massive boulders and rock, mud and other elements that make up a mountain slope, rendering it all weak and prone to sliding at the slightest stimulus. Combined with heavy rains over a short period of time (or a cloudburst), this has contributed to the disaster that mud-avalanches have become in Himachal.
Greed and myopic construction policies have added to the current catastrophe. Greed by building owners who want to erect a structure wherever they think is easy to do so; greed driving the actions of authorities, who either grant permission to build ‘overnight’ homes on fragile slopes or look away if their palms are greased adequately.
Myopia by town planners who, in the rush to speed up ‘development’ and make their resumes look good, hasten construction of such edifices in the hope that they will somehow withstand torrential rains, weakening slopes and sub-standard construction.
It’s a matter of shock that places like Shimla and Manali, which see a regular, large influx of tourists almost throughout the year and in all seasons, does not have a plan to regulate or monitor construction and if they do, then there’s none evident in the current scenario.
In my nearly three years of living in a village near Manali, I was appalled to see haphazard structures with zero stability and no blueprint coming up within days — throwing caution to the wind and cocking a snook at whatever construction guidelines were supposed to exist. The rush to build a modern (what is referred to as ‘lanter’-style) residential structure only for the short-lived pleasure of having the largest or most ‘modern’ building in the neighbourhood and feeling like a million bucks for a few weeks, has led Himachal Pradesh down the path of self-inflicted harm — both ecologically and anthropomorphically.
The visuals we have got used to seeing on our electronic devices are jarring and disturbing. However, if corrective steps are not taken immediately and on a war-footing, then it will be near impossible to save the once-verdant hills of Himachal, which now seem injured, wounded and jettisoned by the very people who once enjoyed its bounties and basked in the gentle warmth of the Himalayan sun and all else that it so readily offered just a few weeks ago.