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Stop Creating ‘Landslide Zones’

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We, the Citizen

By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

According to a news report, our Highway Engineers have decided that the region immediately above the Galogi Hydel Station is a Landslide Zone. A Zone encompasses a much larger portion of terrain than an Area, in common parlance. This is curious, because if Mussoorie’s much-acclaimed Hydro-electric scheme was in such an endangered location, surely it would have been affected many decades ago. And then, would the City Board have built our first ropeway which once conveyed the then Chairman and Members from the highway to the Power Station? That cableway has gone but its terminal cabin at the side of the Mussoorie-Dehradun highway remains as a sad memory of more efficient times.

Perhaps our Highway Engineers are not aware of this. Or perhaps they have concentrated, largely on the financial benefits of building large earth-works on an (audit free) war footing. This situation does, however, strike us as having certain similarities to an orthopaedic surgeon of a large hospital being the owner of an artificial limb factory: demand and supply perfectly matched!

Without judging the competence of those experts, because the continued presence of  earth moving equipment tells its own tale, let us turn our attention to the need for major expenditure on the highway to attend to future landslides. Is there a more natural, less expensive, permanent solution? Perhaps the advice of the FRI might yield such results. We shall start by asking a fundamental question: why do landslides occur in our Garhwal Himalayas?

In geological terms, the Himalayas are very young mountains. They were once, apparently, the bottom of the ancient Tethy Sea. Our limestone was formed out of the bodies of billions of little sea creatures. Prehistoric Ammonites left their shells behind to be sold as religious emblems by canny traders. Titanic sub-surface forces, like the slowly shifting coils of a  great serpent, forced up the bed of this ancient ocean leaving only the Mediterranean Sea and, possibly, some  of the high altitude lakes including the Pangong Tso where the PLO’s salami-slicing activities have remained  strangely unreported of late!

That, possibly strategic, is the primary cause of our landslides. Silence has nothing to do with the rising Himalayas. They are still rising at the speed at which a human finger-nail grows: a sub-continental stretch of a monstrous finger-nail. This accounts for the fact that we, in Mussoorie and Dehra, live in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in India. These tremors do not, however, account for most of our landslides. They are the result of careless human activity.

One of the major reasons is the knee-jerk reactions of our road-builders. They refuse to acknowledge the fact that their concrete highways block the natural flow of ground-water. This is the major cause of our landslides.

When rain or snow-melt soaks into our hillsides it has a good and a bad effect. The good effect is that it recharges our aquifers which are the water storage areas like geological sponges. Water from aquifers gushes out as springs. But in other areas rain and snow-melt water-logs the soil and, if it cannot escape, it bursts out as landslides. But this can be prevented as we saw in Malayasia’s Genting Highlands. In the steepest slopes they had built concrete drainage canals, stepped to break the force of the water, draining into natural streams and rivers.

Second, plant three types of native vegetation. The first is wide rooted soil-binding shrubs like the Mansoor which gave Mussoorie its name. Between the Mansoor, plant surface-holding Sorrel, also known as Khatmeet. It is self propagating, and produces attractive, tiny, red flowers. Some early Scots settlers called it the Heather of the Himalayas. Finally, plant the wide-leafed Windmill Palm, the only one of the Palm family that can survive snow. We had one Windmill Palm in our little forest. Today we have many, surviving and thriving under our Himalayan Oak.

We believe that most land-slides are caused by careless human activity by people who ignore the folk-wisdom of local communities. Highlanders have inherited their love and respect for their mountains. They know that most landslides are caused by humans who ignore the traditional Lore, the Itihas, of the Mountains.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)