Srinagar: On February 19, 2023, Zubair Khan and his family were jolted awake by a massive crack tearing through their single-story home. “We woke up and saw a crack dividing our house into two parts; we knew our house was on the verge of sinking,” Zubair recounted. Living on a monthly income of Rs 10,000, the Khan family knew they were in for a struggle.

The crisis faced by Zubair's family is not an isolated incident. Duksar village, 35 km from Ramban district in Jammu and Kashmir, became a disaster zone when 16 houses, including Zubair's, succumbed to land subsidence in a three-day span. The road between Gool, a peripheral mountain town, and Ramban was severely damaged, resulting in a loss of connectivity, said Khan. Cracks spanning 500 metres appeared, he said, causing disruptions to electricity and water supply.

For Zubair, the gradual three-day sinking was painful as he and his family watched his life’s earnings slowly eroding. With a total of 1,035 houses hanging in the balance, this small community found itself locked in a race against time to prevent further disaster.

Residents blamed the ongoing Katra-Banihal railway line and the construction on National Highway 244, which connects the Doda and Kishtwar districts in Jammu to Anantnag district in south Kashmir, as potential causes of the land subsidence. These projects involve extensive tunnelling and bridge construction in the sensitive Pir Panchal mountains. Additionally, the 850-MW Ratle hydropower project, being built about 7 km away from Thathri, is also seen as a cause of the crisis.

"The reason for this crisis is unplanned excavation," said G.M. Bhat, a Kashmir-based geologist who has also served as head professor of geology at Jammu University.

"Whenever these projects are allotted by the state or the central government, they undergo environmental impact assessments (EIAs) or environmental risk assessments, where we are required to provide an environmental plan." Bhat said that the Union government has a managing committee for the Department of Environment. “However, there are instances where these processes are delayed due to the main contractor hiring subcontractors who often lack efficiency and show little regard for the environment."

The 11.2-km Pir Panchal Railway Tunnel is part of the Qazigund to Banihal railway line that became operational in June 2013. The Katra to Banihal section of the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail link Project (USBRL) project is still under construction.

Bhat blames the management for not involving geologists and environmental experts, or taking their inputs seriously before starting work in this sensitive region.

“It’s been 75 years [since Independence] and we still couldn’t maintain the road,” Bhat points out. “Development is very important, no doubt, but the very first step towards it is road connectivity and it has to be sustainable. The best example for road works development is China--if they can do it, why can’t we? Basically the problem is lack of professionalism.”

Land subsidence in Pir Panchal

The fate of residences in the Pir Panchal range, already plagued by a series of smaller incidents, have now reached a critical juncture. Signs of trouble first surfaced in December 2022 when residents of Nayi Basti, a locality within Thathri, Doda noticed minor cracks in their homes, said Mohammad Jaffar, a resident of Nayi Basti. Despite their concerns, authorities dismissed the issue as insignificant during an inspection in January 2023.

IndiaSpend reached out to Vishesh Paul Mahajan, District Development Commissioner, Doda for comment through phone and email on July 20 and followed up on July 26. This story will be updated when we receive a response.

The situation quickly escalated on February 1 when four houses in the area developed cracks. Within the next five days, the number of affected houses jumped to 21.

Jaffar, 27, who also lost his home due to the crisis, said, "Various teams from different departments have visited our area. Some pledged compensation, while others identified the long-standing issue of water seepage over the past three decades.” Water seepage takes place when rainwater accumulates beyond the land's capacity, increasing hydrostatic pressure, leading to potential land subsidence.

“However, we are all aware that the extensive road construction is the real cause,” Jaffar said. “The excessive land excavation has destabilised our surroundings, jeopardising numerous lives."

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha held a press conference on February 4 at Raj Bhawan in Srinagar and assured that his administration is closely monitoring the structures in Doda that have developed cracks. However, he argued that the situation is not comparable to the land subsidence issue in Joshimath.

Raja Muzaffar, a Kashmir-based environment activist, blames tunnelling and excavation for long-standing damage in the region. "The mountains in this area are incredibly fragile, and there have already been instances of landslides. Unfortunately, the construction work and blasting involved in these high-end projects are making things even worse. The use of heavy machinery is exacerbating the situation, causing additional damage."

The Jammu-Srinagar highway is being four-laned at a cost of Rs 16,000 crore. And 210 km of the route, including 10 tunnels, have already been completed. The construction is expected to finish in 2025, reducing travel time from Srinagar to Jammu from 9-10 hours to 4-5 hours.

G.M. Bhat pointed out that when favourable geological conditions permit, it is advisable to proceed with the construction of four-lane roads. However, if the area is unsuitable for such an endeavour, it is better to forego it and explore alternative options.

A senior official from the Department of Geology and Mining in Srinagar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, argued that there are inevitable trade-offs in development. "Development is essential, but it comes with certain costs,” the official said. “Why don’t we look towards the future, how these four lanes will look, how easy it will be to travel from Kashmir to Jammu or vice-versa. We thoroughly study the area, conduct environmental assessments, and then proceed with the project. Before approving a project, it goes through various departments."

Highway horror

Muzaffar Sheikh, 38, and Mohammad Ishrat, 30, were buried in Panthiyal village after a tragic tunnel collapse on the Jammu-Srinagar highway where work was in progress. Of the 13 workers affected, 10 lost their lives while three were rescued. The incident occurred on the night of May 19, 2022, when a section of the newly initiated adit tunnel between Digdole and Khooni Nallah collapsed, causing extensive damage to the machinery.

The tunnel aims to bypass the treacherous Panthiyal stretch along the Jammu-Srinagar national highway, where travellers fall victim to deadly stones cascading from the hillsides. The road itself bears the burden of frequent landslides, leaving it barricaded and disconnected from the world.

Following the tunnel collapse, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) acted against Ceigall India-Patel Engineering and fined the company Rs 8.46 crore. In addition, the company was banned from participating in any Union government projects for six months.

"Development in mountain regions always has an environmental cost," says Shakeel Romshoo, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir who also holds the chair of Vice Chancellor at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora. “However, progress should always be carefully planned to minimise harm to the environment.

“Whether it's in Pir Panchal or the roads to Jammu, four-lane expansions consistently take a toll on the environment. This extends beyond Jammu and Kashmir; even in Uttarakhand, four-laning projects have resulted in significant environmental damage. Daily events highlight these concerns, underscoring the importance of environmentally friendly infrastructure that reduces costs."

In recent years, with the increase in construction, widening of the highway, and the construction of tunnels, the number of landslides on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway has been on the rise. Since 1990, the highway, the northernmost segment of NH 44, has witnessed a series of disastrous incidents as landslides continue to pose a threat to the vital roadway. From 1990 to 2020, 61 were killed while more than 30 were injured on the highway, due to landslides.

The Pir Panchal range stands out because it's a flat plateau, unlike the other mountain ranges. One of the biggest factors that affect this range is its steep slopes. Even slopes with a 15-degree angle are prone to landslides. As the angles increase, the pressure on the soil and loose materials becomes greater, leading to a higher frequency of landslides in these areas.

The hills surrounding the Jammu-Srinagar highway are rocky and barren. Any disturbance, whether natural or human-induced, has devastating effects. The use of machines to cut the hills loosens the soil through vibrations, widening fractures and trapping water. This, coupled with natural factors, weakens the hills and makes them prone to landslides.

"Driving along the Jammu-Srinagar highway has become a nerve-wracking experience,” said Nadeem Bhat, a truck driver who has spent 18 years of his life on the Indian highways. “You never know when the road might give way beneath your wheels."

On July 8, a series of landslides wreaked havoc on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. The vital lifeline connecting Kashmir to the rest of the country was closed for five consecutive days due to landslides at various locations, including Mehar, Cafeteria Morh, Keela Morh, Sita Ram Passi, and Panthiyal in Ramban.

The National Highway closure resulted in traffic diversion to Mughal Road until the affected sections were restored. A day after the diversion, two people died when the bus they were travelling in was struck by a landslide in Bhanghroo Gandoh village of Doda district. A day later, in the afternoon on July 9, Director of Finance at the department of Forest, Ecology and Environment Sardar Ranbir Singh Bali, along with his son and wife, died after their car plunged into a deep gorge.

"Landslides have become a recurring nightmare for us,” said Nadeem Bhat. “The highway's closure disrupts our daily lives and affects businesses in the region."

Over the course of eight years from 2010 to 2018, 44 individuals have lost their lives on this particular highway, and their deaths were solely attributed to landslides. The severity of the situation surrounding this road has led it to be widely known as the 'Killer Highway'.

“In other countries, they avoid disturbing slopes, mountains and killing forests,” Romshoo points out. “Unfortunately, in Kashmir, they don’t. Road cutting involves removing soil, further destabilising the region and to address these issues, our priority should be environmentally-friendly infrastructure.” While acknowledging the necessity of development and roads, he urges a reconsideration of extensive four-lane highways.

"Every life lost and every road washed away serves as a reminder that we require improved infrastructure planning and effective disaster management strategies."

The damned valley

In the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir, there are abundant forests and deep valleys that are perfect for generating hydroelectricity. The Chenab River has made this region a powerhouse, with most of the state’s hydropower potential concentrated here. To harness the water resources, several dams have been built in the mountain gorges, creating large reservoirs.

Power generation in the area began with the Salal power project in Reasi, which started in 1987 and has a capacity of 690 MW. Other projects include the Dul-Hasti Power Project near Kishtwar (390 MW) and the Baglihar power project (900 MW), with its 143-metre high dam and a reservoir with a capacity of 475 million cubic metres of water.

The government is implementing several other power projects in the region which are at different stages, including the Ratle (850 MW), Pakal Dul (1,000 MW), Kiru (624 MW), Kwar (540 MW), Bursar (800 MW) and Kirthai-II (930 MW) projects.

Majid Ahmad, a scientist with the Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing, emphasised the importance of sustainable development while acknowledging the need for progress. “Being a policy maker and a scientist, I think development is a must,” Majid Ahmad said. “Our population is increasing, and it is important to provide access and employment opportunities, as well as create industries for our people. We must take care of the growing population, economy and tourist sector."

G.M. Bhat, the geologist who has also extensively researched earthquakes in the region, however warns about the consequences of unregulated development of dams. “There has been a noticeable rise in the frequency of earthquakes and cloudbursts in Chenab Valley lately,” Bhat said. “If these natural calamities happen in proximity to lakes or dam sites, the resulting massive influx of water will bring catastrophic destruction to the downstream settlement."

He emphasised that the Chenab Valley, located in seismic Zone 4, is highly vulnerable to powerful earthquakes that occur with regularity, and advocates for the construction of small hydroelectric projects with smaller reservoirs, which can be easily controlled, as opposed to the construction of large dams.

Defying geologists' warning, railway links to Kashmir

In 1972, Jammu and Kashmir joined the Indian rail network when the railway line between Jammu and Pathankot was inaugurated. However, the northern regions remained disconnected.

The railway line from Jammu Tawi to Udhampur that aimed to bridge the gap to the north was completed and operationalised in April 2005. “The extension to Srinagar was deemed economically unfeasible after a survey of the Pir Panjal Range,” said the senior official at Department of Geology and Mining. In 1994, while the Jammu-Udhampur line struggled to reach completion, the ministry announced a rail line that would even go beyond Srinagar to Baramulla.

In 2002, recognising the urgency of an unbroken rail link, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government declared the railway line a national project, solely funded by the Union government. In 2005, the Jammu-Udhampur section was finally completed.

In 2008, the Ministry of Railways cancelled the existing alignment between Katra and Qazigund due to suspected geological instability, necessitating a re-evaluation of the project's Leg 2. By 2014, significant progress was evident as the Udhampur-Katra line was opened, enabling commercial railway services from the rest of India up to Katra. The Banihal to Baramulla stretch was also operational, linking the north of the state.

As of 2019, all portions of the track were ready except for the link between Katra and Banihal.

In April 2021, a major milestone was achieved with the completion and closure of the main arch of the Chenab Bridge. This remarkable feat laid the foundation for the construction of additional structures atop the bridge.

The ambitious 272-km railway project comes with a price tag of Rs 37,012 crore against which Rs 26,786 crore has been incurred up to March 2022.

What makes this project intriguing is the sheer magnitude of the work involved. Of the 119 km that contain 38 tunnels, the longest tunnel spans 12.75 km. The Banihal-Katra track covers 97.42 km of tunnels, along with several bridges, including the iconic Chenab Bridge, set to be the world's highest railway bridge.

With thousands of people working deep inside the mountains with basic cutting and blasting machinery, a lot of activity is generated. In a setback to the Udhampur-Katra track project, a nearly 3-km long tunnel experienced gradual sinking in July 2006 due to substantial soil swelling at both ends. This rendered the tunnel unusable and caused a significant delay in the project's completion. To address the issue after years of setbacks, like water seepage and sinking, Northern Railways enlisted the help of an Austrian consultant, identified by an official from the Department of Geology and Mining, Kashmir as Geo Consult International (GCI).

The construction of several tunnels between Katra and Sangaldan also posed challenges due to abnormal water discharge. During the excavation of one tunnel, water discharge of 50 litres per second turned into a flow of 1,000 litres per second due to heavy rain. The work on the tunnel took six years to complete because of the seepage.

In the summer of 2016, authorities were compelled to relocate 124 families, virtually the entire village of Dharam, as a massive portion of land on which the hamlet stood collapsed within three months. While officials attributed the incident to natural causes, residents believe it was linked to the ongoing construction work on the nearby railway line.

Ahmad, of the Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing, highlighted the crucial role of ground-level implementation and the need for strict adherence to guidelines. “The company working on the project needs to collaborate with different government sectors, and those sectors must ensure that everything aligns with their specific needs, whether it's the DFO or the pollution control board,” Ahmad said.

Regarding the concerns surrounding the construction of tunnels, Ahmad explained, “The number of tunnels depends on the government's budget and the areas they can avoid while focusing on four-laning. The landslides in the Nashri and Ramban stretch are a result of the region's pre-existing vulnerability to landslides, exacerbated by increased developmental activities and the excavation process. The construction of numerous tunnels is triggering these landslides.”

While acknowledging the current challenges and issues such as deaths and landslides, Ahmad urged a forward-looking perspective. “We must consider the future impact of developmental projects, envisioning the express highway in 10-20 years and the reduced travel time it will offer,” he said. “Although we may face difficulties during the development process, we need to prioritise long-term benefits.”

Ahmad mentioned the accountability mechanisms in place, explaining, “Not all projects adhere to the rules and regulations we provide, resulting in fines. In some cases, projects are even ordered to halt. However, the implementation of these orders remains uncertain.”

“We are actively working towards addressing these issues from our end,” he added.

As the government races to achieve its infrastructure goals, the people of Pir Panchal remain in a wait and watch mode, anticipating the consequences that these projects will have on their lives and the fragile ecosystem.

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