ONCE UPON a time, the residents of Sayari and Kahla villages in Himachal’s Solan district grew all kinds of winter vegetables on their fertile land, irrigated by water from natural springs. Today, the springs are gone, the fields are barren, and the water has turned turbid.
The proposed expansion of the Shimla airport at Jubbarhatti has now revived fears of further ecological damage among the area’s residents, who are still suffering due to the environmental tragedy that followed its construction in the 1980s.
According to residents of villages lying downhill from the hilltop airport, heavy blasting and reckless dumping of debris when the airport was being built dealt a severe blow to the agricultural economy of the area — natural water springs that irrigated farms were destroyed, and the soil stopped supporting crops which grew in abundance earlier. The most devastating effect of the project, residents said, is the long-term contamination of water in the area, which has permanently turned either reddish or milky white.
“It (agriculture) is over. Nothing grows here anymore. We grew all types of winter vegetables here before the 80s. This was a very fertile area,” said 74-year-old Ram Lal from Kot village.
“When we attempted to use this water for growing potatoes and tomatoes, they turned a strange bluish colour. Now, nobody here even washes hands with this water as it’s sticky. Vegetables don’t grow. Before this destruction, agriculture flourished in this valley throughout the year and any other job was unheard of, as this was a land of plenty. Now, people have been forced to find other jobs,” said Sumitra Jaswal, 67, another resident.
The same story is repeated village after village.
Before the airport was built, there were a couple of natural springs on the hilltop, from where water flowed down through several nullahs and kuhls (irrigation channels) and irrigated the fields of nine villages falling under the gram panchayats of Kahla and Sayari in Solan district.
For building the airstrip, the hilltop was flattened, destroying the springs. One of the villages, Thail, had to be acquired completely and its inhabitants resettled. Residents said that blasting and levelling of land went on for years, during which debris, muck and rocks flowed down freely into their fields, especially during the rains, while several buildings developed cracks.
Water in the remaining bawdis (tanks) changed colour, and started leaving white traces on the rocks. The residents now depend on a water scheme run by the Irrigation and Public Health (IPH) department which draws water from a separate stream unaffected by the contamination.
“But it’s only for drinking purposes and comes for around an hour after three days, when we fill up our tanks. The fields are barren now and the little existing agriculture now is rain-fed,” said Madan Lal of Kahla village, who received a notice recently regarding the acquisition of his land. He said that people whose lands were acquired during the original project were promised employment, but were engaged only during the construction.
Ram Chand Sharma (68) from Bagi village pointed out patches adjoining the rivulets which supported their crops earlier. “Garlic, cauliflower, brinjal — all vegetables grew here back then. Now it’s only wild growth. Agricultural output here now is only a quarter of what it was before the project,” he remarked.
Kahla and Sayari lie in the mid-hill agro-climatic zone (651 to 1,800 metres above sea level) which has a high potential for growing cash crops such as off-season vegetables and production of quality seeds of temperate vegetables such as cauliflower and root crops, according to the state agriculture department.
There continue to exist several water tanks in the area, but they are avoided by the residents. Passers-by are warned not to drink water from roadside hand-pumps, which bring out water with a red-brown tinge.
No reported studies or testing of water and soil has been carried out in the area to ascertain the elements causing the contamination. “Decades ago, I sent a sample for testing to the IPH office in Kandaghat but the results never came back,” said Sharma.
What authorities have to say
Airport authorities said they have already carried out a geotechnical investigation study for the proposed expansion. “The plan is to extend the runway by 300 mts to facilitate air carriers with lesser penalty load. The restoration of basic strip and associated works is underway. We have also prepared a detailed plan for drainage out of the airport,” said B Sarkar, DGM, civil engineering, and the officiating director.
He further said that there was reportedly heavy soil erosion in the area during the time the airport was built. “No chemicals leaked out into the water. One possible reason for the contamination could be the after-effects of the erosion which may have leached materials from underlying rocks.”
An IPH official said that they would carry out testing of the water sources in the area. “The IPH water supply is free of any contamination. As far as contamination in the natural sources is concerned, it happened several decades ago presumably as a result of civil engineering works carried out for building the airport. Sometimes, when the strata of the land is loose, some materials are pumped into the soil in large quantities in a process called grouting and it could be one of the reasons for the contamination,” said the official.
The proposal includes acquisition of around 123 bighas of land. “The state government is proceeding with the acquisition process but there are obstacles,” added Sarkar.
The Solan deputy commissioner has held meetings with the stakeholders whose lands are to be acquired, but land-owners have quoted a price higher than the government’s offer.
Madan Lal, whose land is to be acquired, said that he would prefer not to sell it. “But we can’t do much if the government is bent on acquiring it. They made many promises last time too, but look what they have done to the land. If there is any more damage to the environment here, where will my children and grandchildren go?” he asked.