Now that the unnecessary but huge damage to the environment has been done by unscientific widening of Kalka-Kumarhatti stretch of the Kalka-Shimla Highway, the government and the National Green Tribunal must step in to learn lessons and avoid similar damage in the second stretch of the highway upto Kaithlighat. It is late but not too late to avoid further damage.
Anyone who had driven on the Kalka-Kumarhatti stretch of National Highway during the last three years would have wandered about the massive damage to environment and the unscientific manner in which the widening of the highway is being done.
The project which began in 2015 was supposed to get completed in 30 months. However despite having jumped the deadline by a year and a half, the work remains unfinished. The company undertaking the construction has now claimed it would be completed within the next six months.
While there could be a number of factors responsible for the delay in the completion of the project, what is deeply worrying is the long term damage to the environment caused by the questionable widening of the highway and its shoddy execution.
The Kalka-Kumarhatti stretch itself involved cutting of 23,785 fully grown trees and the rest of the project upto Kaithlighat would involve cutting if 21,581 more trees. The number would definitely go up as each spell of rain causes landslides and uprooting of more trees. Finally over 50,000 trees would be sacrificed to widen the highway.
Almost all these trees were several decades old and the new saplings would take as many years to grow. Till the saplings grown and bind the soil, the area is likely to witness landslides. Experts say it would take at least a dozen years to stabilise the land and many more years to reduce chances of landslides.
One side of the highway has almost been completely blocked after the recent rains which had led to widespread landslides. It is huge wastage of public money and one wonders why the National Green Tribunal and other agencies have not woken up to the poor work and continued damage to the ecology.
The vertical cutting of the hillside with the help of heavy machinery is also one of the blunders committed by the company and ignored by the authorities. Geologists say a particular angle of cutting the hillside was required to avoid landslides.
Evidently neither the company which is undertaking the construction work, nor the national highways authority of India have taken advise of geologists and other experts. Even a common man would know that two to three meters of retaining walls were too inadequate to prevent landslides. The walls are now being raised which has hiked the project cost from Rs 748 crore to Rs 882 crore. Why has no one been held responsible for the poor planning and execution of the project is the moot question.
In fact road engineering experts and environmentalists have been raising questions even over the need of such a project and its execution. While one is not against developmental projects keeping them needs of the society over the coming years, why steps were not taken to minimise the damage to ecology. The entire stretch upto Kumarhatti has no tunnels and has just one overbridge over a railway line. Construction of tunnels and flyovers would have certainly restricted damage to the nature. For instance, a flyover of less than half a kilometer could have saved the town of Dharampur and prevented uprooting of shops and residences of the historic township.
When most countries are attempting to preserve the environment by avoiding cutting of trees and making use of modern technology to bore tunnels and make bridges, and even the Modi government is taking steps such as a ban on single use plastic, we need to think twice before finalising such projects.
Now that the damage has been done, the government and the National Green Tribunal must step in to learn lessons and avoid similar damage in the second stretch of the highway upto Kaithlighat. It is late but not too late to avoid further damage.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)
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