Friday, January 28, 2011

The Writing on the wall...an excerpt from the Statesman


High-rises and low concern

27 January 2011
Caught between the chaos of the Gorkhaland movement and the advantage taken of an uncaring administration by local builders, Darjeeling is quite literally in need of help, writes dipjyoti das

NESTLED in the vicinity of the towering Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling – known fondly as the “Queen of the Hills” — provides the perfect getaway for those wanting to be in harmony with nature. But the rapid construction of high-rise buildings, the majority of which are illegal, has led to a degradation of the soil texture in the region which, in turn, could result in landslides.
   The Darjeeling Hills lie in the Mahabharata Range or the Lesser Himalayas, at an average elevation of 6,710 feet (2,050 metres). The area has steep slopes and loose topsoil, and the rock structure is of comparatively recent vintage, giving rise to frequent landslides over the past few years. But in spite of strict rules and regulations, local builders seem to ignore the natural threat and public concern and continue to erect their high-rises. And the authorities concerned also couldn’t seem to care less and have failed to take appropriate steps.
   Meteorological experts fear that such unprecedented construction will eventually result in massive calamity in the near future, accounting for millions of lives.
   Immediate steps need to be taken by the government and the local authorities to curb and avoid any further construction.
   Strict regulations that apply regarding construction and “no-objection” certificates need to be sanctioned but somehow the norms are neither followed nor enforced by the authorities. The state government too has been ignorant about the entire matter and has allowed these constructions. Instead, West Bengal’s minister of state for urban development, Ashok Bhattacharya, lays the entire blame on the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the local municipal authorities.
   He recently pointed out that the state government could not interfere in the matter directly but would ask the local civic bodies to curb such constructions. He added that the law and order situation had denigrated in the Darjeeling hills over the past few years because of the renewed movement by the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha for a separate Gorkhaland state. Local builders, he said, were taking advantage of the situation but he hoped the local authorities would take adequate measures once the situation gradually improved.
Another massive worry is also that the Darjeeling region is seismically very active, which can result in earthquakes. And given that the construction of a single high-rise creates further inroads into newer areas, the threat of landslides is exacerbated. According to the Bureau of Indian Standards, Darjeeling town falls under Seismic Zone-IV, (on a scale of one to five, in order of increasing proneness to earthquakes) near the convergent boundary of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates and is subject to frequent earthquakes.
   Particularly during the monsoon, heavy rains trigger landslide in the region, a calamity that has occurred in increasing number over the past few years. The entire picture of the hills was different during British rule, when no one was allowed to construct five- or six-storeyed buildings. But during the 1970s and ’80s there was a massive real estate boom in the country and Darjeeling was no exception.
   Subir Sarkar, a meteorological expert from Siliguri, expressed his concern at the major threats these constructions posed for the hilly region. “There is a twofold problem,” he said. “One, when you are constructing a huge building you are putting additionalpressure on the hill slopes; the construction of such a building also brings newer areas under the landslide threat. Due to the construction of one massive structure, innumerable human lives are under threat. Second, as we know, these hills are seismically very active and earthquake activities are also not uncommon. We are lucky enough nothing like that has happened till now here, but it can any time in the near future. If a major earthquake, like one measuring 7 on the Richter scale, should occur here, you can imagine how many millions of people would perish. During the monsoon, too, frequent landslides occur at various junctures along the highway.
   The government and the law enforcing agencies need to immediately look into the matter and take drastic measures to put heavy constructions on hold to avoid a major disaster. One must not forget that Darjeeling is different from the foothills of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. In Darjeeling, the carrying capacity is much less than those areas.”
   He also questioned the role of the state government and the authorities concerned over their negligence and attitude towards such a significant issue.
   The Darjeeling hills and its administrative section have been seriously disturbed by the political turmoil that has been going on for the last few years because of the Gorkhaland movement which has, as mentioned, provided the opportunity for many builders to construct high-rises illegally. The locals too have been unaware of the threat posed by such constructions and the administrative negligence that has been a contributing factor to the current scenario.
   Given the massive number of tourist from all over the world, never mind the many from across India who visit Darjeeling on a regular basis to enjoy its scenic beauty and congenial climate, thereby contributing to the economy of the region, precautionary measures need to be adopted immediately so as to preserve and maintain the persona of the Queen of the Hills.

Comment by Praful Rao
Much has been written about building codes and improper land use in this area yet we seem to be hurtling towards impending disaster without a care in the world. I daresay that the entire dry period from the end of monsoons in 2010 till now has been wasted and virtually nothing has been done towards landslide prevention or preparedness in the entire district. You may read more about this here or check a previous blog

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