Professor Arun Deep Ahluwalia is former head of Panjab University’s Department of Geology and is considered an expert in the fields of geoscience and environmental science. In an interview, Aluwalia throws light on the environmental consequences of the road project:
Could the current situation in the area have been anticipated?
No road, tunnel, bridge or highway anywhere in the world gets through, right from perception to completion, without active day-to-day involvement of a geological department. Had the Geological Survey of India been involved like it has been in the Rohtang Tunnel, this mess was impossible. It is not that there would have been no problems but these would have been planned for in advance and mitigated simultaneously in a comprehensive and technical way. The big mess on the highway makes me wonder if some experts were involved at all. A geological safety certificate from experts was the least that should have been obtained. Detailed mapping and risk assessment clubbed with disaster mitigation is the international practice in all advanced countries.
As a geologist, what do you think should have been done before the start of the project?
Our country is bestowed with rich geological heritage of the youngest and the loftiest mountain range of the world, i.e. Himalayas, encompassing several precious rock sequences storing history of hundreds of millions of years. All stakeholders should have been notified about this massive destruction so they could document their sections as these are further exposed. It has exposed details of rocks and fossils where geologists should have been involved on the spot. Doing this exercise in their absence is tantamount to denying them precious research opportunity.
The work is right now in the initial stage. How do you see the situation as the construction moves ahead?
Area is already in a huge mess. Villages up and down slope are in great danger and the road threatens to be unstable for several decades if not half a century. Although it is late, yet it is wise to go slow and be cautious in larger public interest.
The state government had issued a notification in the past that freed HAI from any need of environmental clearance for the project. Do you see that also as a reason that the authority could not anticipate what they are dealing with?
Doing away with environmental clearance does not give the company a licence to destroy the total ecology and put lives of locals and those passing through in danger. People at helm seem to be behaving as crude labour rather than world-class technical experts. I have during field work seen some pillars in the riverbed which quickly can come down with a slight erosion in rains.
Thousands of trees were cut to create space for constructing the road. How do you see that as a reason for the sliding in the area?
Indeed, forests are a binding factor for hill slopes. No doubt, hills and trees have to be cut to widen a road but these have to be done judiciously and under expert supervision. Trees the world over are transplanted through huge machines rather than killed forever. Pity that in our country we are not even talking about the technique and don’t think twice about killing these lungs of nature suddenly and thoughtlessly.
Was there an alternative to cutting the hills?
There could have been huge tunneling points saving the massive open air mayhem and mess. A dialogue between stakeholders could have given many sustainable alternatives but no such dialogue took place. Ignoring geologists shows geo illiteracy of the government.
Can the claimed afforestation in the area mitigate the losses caused by removal of the trees?
Trees like the ones cut may take several decades to grow, especially if the hill slopes around the new road take several decades to stabilise. If on old roads like Mandi, Kullu and Kinnaur, we have active landslides even today, we may expect unheard of devastation here for five to 10 decades.
Do you think the road will be safe for travel?
Safety on this highway shall be a thing of the past in view of the half-baked and immature handling of this project. A man in a hurry waits twice but a contractor in a hurry with no expert backing can just disappear into thin air out of desperation and incompetence. New contractors and experts may be impossible to find and the road may be in perpetual limbo. Even the heritage railway line is in danger. I hope I am wrong. Tunnels, ropeways for tourists and small diversions into new one-way bypass roads may have been a lovely option full of joy and fun. On such hills, expressways are the last resort. If they dare to go beyond Solan even now, they may mess it up forever as the slopes are higher and more fragile where we have schistose rocks, especially near Shimla and Shogi.
A high-level review in an open and transparent manner and repeated field conferences of experts is the only way to limit the damage. It is never too late not to mess up and respect scientific opinion in public interest as Kalka-Shimla is a global destination.