A disaster waiting to happen in Darjeeling

A disaster waiting to happen in Darjeeling

Darjeeling, considered the “Queen of the Hills” in the days of the British Raj and many years after that, has been a peaceful summer resort for “sahibs” and their parasol-flaunting “memsahibs”, foll­owed by brown “sahibs” in post-Independence era.

For the brightest gem in eastern Himalayas for nearly two centuries, all might not be well with the popular hill station. The scale of the recent disaster at Uttarakhand has raised many a resear­chers’ eyebrow. They also express disgust over negligence and the government, which wakes up only after a tragedy or loss of lives. Researchers studying mountains say that Himalayas is still growing and youthful in its tendencies and warn that taking not proper care could lead to a blunder.

According to a recent study by the Centre for Himalayan Studies under the North Bengal University, the situation might not be out of hands yet but none­theless grave. The study reveals that since 1947, the rise in population--ever-growing number of tourists and increasing local population-- has been exerting pressure on the fragile eco-system of not only  Darjeeling but also on surrounding areas such as Kurseong, Kalimpong and even in Sikkim.  Stating cold numbers, the study cited that in 1872, the population per square kilometre of Darjeeling was 29, which went up to 181 in 1951 and from there to 421 in 2001. The figure for the last census is not yet available but researchers apprehend the figure must have gone up substantially.

Other figures available point out that if the region’s total population was less than 12 million in 1900, by1951 that went up to 19.5 million and crossed 65 million by mid-2006. The overall environmental degradation of the eastern Himalayas is manifested in the bare hill slopes and ugly landscape across the whole range. “Steady deforestation accentuates the problem of soil erosion and culminates into frequent landslides. There are also problems of recession and drying up of springs and changes in water table,” the report points out.

Disregard for norms

The danger is further accentuated by total disregard for building norms, which were mostly formulated by the colonial government. “The demand of rapid urba­nisation and tourism has forced the post-colonial government to discard building norms and architectural guidelines of the British period to maintain the landscape. There has been a proliferation of authorised and unauthorised buildings, some of these even multi-storeyed, without proper drainage,” the report states, expl­aining the severity of the situation. It adds that while the hill towns have expanded and become congested, the situation has led to several civic problems, taking away the old charm. Rising number of vehicles ferrying tourists has led to rise in pollution.

Prof Abhijit Kundu from the Department of Environment Management at BITS, Mesra, said that construction of houses and roads in Darjeeling and adjo­ining areas should ideally be at an angle of 35 degrees, after proper “slope stability analysis”, following norms laid down by the government. The ground reality beli­es all that with rampant construction taking place at even a slope of 65 degrees.

Prof Kundu, who also headed of a team from Jadavpur University which formulated the master plan for the state disaster management, says that the state government will soon release a vulnerability report along with maps for the three districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. He adds that he was associated with a team preparing a vulnerability report of Jalpaiguri district on behalf of the UNDP, which raises similar concerns.

“Population is one of the biggest issues for Darjeeling and adjacent places. Once a peaceful hill resort, the area now has among the highest rates of urbanisation in the country. The mountain is still young and restless and the top soil being soft makes it very prone to landslides,” Prof Kundu explains. Popular tourist spots around Darjeeling, including Kalimpong, Kurseong, Mirik, Ghum and Rangli, are most landslide-prone.

“While compiling our report, we divided the areas in to four categories of severe, high, moderate and low, according to the severity of landslides. Kalimpong is the worst, with most of the popular spots being highly prone. Since rainfall over Darjeeling and neighbouring areas is the highest in Bengal, almost 4,000 mm annually, that too, just between June and September, the soft topsoil is even more loose, putting the region at the edge of a disaster,” the professor of environment management states.

If Prof Kundu seems to be talking like an “end of days” theorist, none of the
other reports seem to be optimistic about the state of affairs. Citing examples gathered from ground realities, Darjeeling-based Save The Hills (STH) also expresses similar fears. A citizens’ initiative, STH runs ecology awareness campaigns among residents living even in the interior-most villages of the area, points out how in September 2007 intense rainfall in Kalimpong triggered large number of landslides, causing substantial loss of lives and property.

“This has brought to the fore the issue of environmental degradation and the consequent landslides in the Himalayan environment. Darjeeling is a microcosm of problems arising throughout the Himalaya, with rapidly increasing number of landslides causing major problems. STH functionaries seemed even more concerned with the ecological inconsistency noticed this June.

“June 2013 was extraordinary; it was the month of the “Himalayan Tsunami” when torrential rains over Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh caused unprecedented loss of lives. The Darjeeling-Sikkim region received less than 5 mm rain, with nearly half of June being alm­ost dry. Researchers believe that the Darjeeling region is an example of what happens to fragile ecology of the mountains when immediate economic gains and rapid development are given priority over the concern for environment.

As nature seems to be striking back for years of silent ignominy and relentless disrespect in the hands of man, by way of rampant urbanisation, harnessing of natural resources without qualms or quandary and ingratitude towards the extent of its raw power, when unleashed, is what man needs to take a look at. The mountains are back and they do not seem very happy.

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