Chardham rail plan to hit hills badly

The project proposes a total track length at 327 km involving 61 tunnels, 59 bridges and 21 stations.

A major project to interlink the four major Hindu shrines called Chardham in Uttarakhand — Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri — with a metre-gauge railway line has become a subject of debate among people for various reasons even though it is being seen as a harbinger of quicker development of the nascent hill state located in central Himalayas.

Laying the foundation stone for the project on May 13, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu and Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh expressed the hope that a staggering Rs 43,000 crore worth project will go a long way not only in promoting religious tourism in the state in a big way but also boosting its economy.

The initial survey of the mega project in the rugged sub-Hima­layan mountainous region was conducted by Railway Vikas Nigam Limited during 2014-15 which subsequently submitted its report to the Union government in October 2015. The project report proposes a total length of track at 327 km involving the making of 61 tunnels, 59 bridges and 21 stations. The survey expenditure itself will be Rs 121 crore.

The demand for a railway link to the Garhwal Himalayas dates back to 1920s when the British ordered a survey of a proposed metre gauge rail track between Rishikesh and upland hill station Karnprayag. However, that survey report rejected such a plan even though metre gauge lines had been approved for other hill stations like Darjeeling, Shimla etc. The geologists at that time felt that Garhwal hills were comparatively fragile.

Some experts feel that construction of the Chardham line and the movement of trains round the clock may have major bearing on the rock foundations. Then, there is the possibility of frequent landslides, particularly during rainy season, for which central Garhwal Himalayas are known. Unabated major and minor landslides often paralyse life in the region.

Past records point to heavy landslides, some times even washing away villages, killing scores of people and often blocking roads for days, thus blocking the vehicular traffic movement in the area difficult. Sudden cloudbursts also trigger landslides in the mountains. Such torrential rains have often swept away villages killing people instantaneously in many parts of the Garhwal region.

It is a well-known fact how the devastating cloudburst in Kedarnath area of Chamoli district in June 2013 had claimed thousands of lives and rendered hundreds missing and homeless. In July 1970, a similar cloudburst near Rudraprayag in another part of the district had taken scores of lives and displaced people.

As it were, lower Garhwal Himalayas lie in Zone IV of the seismic map of the country and the region has experienced scores of major and minor jolts during the last century. Between 1902 to 1999, Garhwal Himalayas experienced nine major and minor quakes claiming a heavy toll of lives and property.

Available reports say that in the past six years alone, scores of minor quakes, ranging in magnitude between 4 to 5.1 on the Richter scale, have jolted the region. The latest was in February this year with a magnitude of 5.8 on the Richter scale.

Some earthquake scientists often talk about the possibility of a major quake hitting the region again any time in future. In 1991 and 1999, two major quakes in Garhwal had caused large-scale damage both in terms of life and property. Some 1,500 people were feared killed in the October 1991 quake. One can imagine what will happen to a train during a sudden quake hitting the region.

Blasting threat

Blasting for construction of dams along the major river valleys in Garhwal also poses a threat to the mountains. As of now, some 45 hydro-power projects exist in the state and some 199 more are proposed. This means a fresh blasting of slopes.

Despite the Centre’s anno­uncements of measures to ch­eck eco-degradation of the lower Himalayas and pre and post disaster management in the region in the wae of neo-tectonic activities, indiscriminate use of JCB machines, electric drillers and dynamite by the Border Road Organisation for the construction of roads continues.

In fact, to study the impact of neo-tectonic activities a commi­ttee had been appointed by Centre. According to some geologists, fresh blasting and tree felling for the construction of tunnels, rail tracks, over-bridges and stations will hugely affect the rock foundations at many places. However, some other geologists do believe that barring some teething problems, nothing much would happen to the safety of tracks or trains or rocks.

Lastly, some people also fear that introduction of regular trains in the serene altitudes of Garhwal may adversely affect the lives of simple hill folks. Besides the devotees, the pressure of big crowds foraying into region may increase, affecting the indigenous eco-system including the wildlife, peaceful environment, simple social fabric of the hill-folk and hygiene.

Constant overcrowding may enhance the chances of major rivers — Ganga and Yamuna — emanating from the state, further getting polluted by all kinds of waste. Though such problems do not seem to have surfaced in other sub-Himalayan train routes, the rail project is much too large for the dismissal of any such fears.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Dehradun)

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