Home Feature DROP! COVER! HOLD!

DROP! COVER! HOLD!

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By GANESH SAILI

‘No fear of any authority is left! Folks simply do not care a hoot!’ says Ramesh Bhandari, twice elected as a Municipal Councillor. We are looking down at the newly sprung structures that have come up on a sixty-degree incline of the hill near Spring View. ‘Don’t forget that they will be the first ones to cry for compensation when they slide down that slippery slope!’

‘Carrying capacity? Who believes in that these days??’ he mocks as he shakes his head in disbelief at the thin stilts that prop up these structures.

 ‘Progress has to come! But at what cost?’ he shakes his head.

 Another friend writes in to ask: ‘Where exactly is Landour sinking?’

‘All over the place!’ I told him. For no matter which way you turn: anywhere from Jharipani to Cloud End; from Clock Tower to Library Chowk or from one end to the other we have been hacking away at the hills completely oblivious of the fact that we live in a seismic zone and are sitting atop a ticking time bomb. The Uttarkashi Earthquake of 20th October 1991  measured 6.8 on the Richter and caused widespread damage. In Uttarakhand alone it affected the lives of some three lakh people, devastated 1294 villages and left 768 people dead.

The consequences of building law violations are devastating. Buildings constructed a few years ago have hairline cracks. ‘ Tufu-dreg is what the Chinese call such shoddy construction in buildings that have been built in utter disregard of existing laws!’ says R.N. Parsher, a friend revisiting the station. ‘Often they come down even before being occupied.’

All over Mussoorie, the newer concrete structures were the only ones to develop cracks in the last earthquake; the older ones stood their ground, primarily because they had been built with wooden frames, random rubble and lime mortar. Today concrete is King in our nearby villages. Possessed by a ‘lintel mania’ from Bhatta to Kyarkuli, Kanda to Kolti, top-heavy concrete slabs have replaced the slate topped roofs resting upon carved wooden tibaris (verandahs).

‘Mussoorie is in Zone V of the Rajpur fault!’ the Wadia Institute has cried itself hoarse. Next time the earth moves, there shall be no escape and we shall pay a heavy price. All our approach roads are jammed with parked vehicles, the NDRF will be unable to get to those trapped.

Only some of our schools continue to conduct mock drills. They teach toddlers what to do in case of an earthquake:  ‘Drop! Cover! Hold!’  

Looking back in time, I find that in March, 1905 when we received our second makeover in a century and a quarter, it was for the visit of HRH The Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary). Hardly had she left when, on the morning of April 4th 1905, an earthquake hit us. ‘It struck during the early hour of the morning, when most people were still asleep; the more violent phases of the shock dealt summary destruction to life, causing serious damage to buildings in DehraDun and Mussoorie.’ So great was the shock that the springs in Lyndale’s Mackinnon Brewery showed an increased discharge of 20 to 30 percent that gradually began to return to normal levels  only after 20th May. 

The Great Indian earthquake damaged many buildings and Barlowganj’s Maryville Estate suffered badly. Its impressive Trivoli Garden lost its pavilion along with other structures which were never rebuilt. And yet without a second thought we are back with a vengeance. Clouds of dust billow in the air while we build as if there were no tomorrow.

Elsewhere near Clock Tower’s St. Emilian Church (built by a wealthy jam and pickle merchant, Mr. Emile) which came up on the site of a converted boarding house was flattened. But with little more than faith, he rebuilt his church in 1908, albeit on a much reduced scale. In this area many hotels have come up where maps were passed exclusively for residential use.

With the kind of quick fix construction that has gone on, I am afraid that next time we are blindsided, there shall be complete devastation and rest assured there shall be no winners.           

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.