Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An input from an engineer..

Niraj Lama has indeed raised some pertinent points, although I do not fully agree to some of his recommended solutions!

1.Re: Landslide-Zone Mapping. This was taken up by Darjeeling DM’s Office (perhaps during Mr. Verma’s time, who was also the Chief Principal Secretary of DGHC later on). I had attended one of their meetings 8-10 years ago, and there was a lady heading the Netaji Institute of Asian Studies then. I don’t know if causes of landslides in our hills had been pinpointed and specific recommendations arrived at on a micro level. However it will certainly be worthwhile to try and get hold of the relevant maps and reports either from the DM’s Office ( the Head Assistant there should know about this) or from Netaji Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata itself. Lets see if this can serve as a Base of sorts.

2.Re: Need for Relocation of people from identified vulnerable areas and Holistic Approach to Urban and Rural Development . This is a tough one! According to O’Malley’s Darjeeling District Gazetteer ,”when the British first acquired the hill territory in 1835, it was almost entirely under forest, and what small population it had, had been driven out by the oppression of the petty ruler whom they replaced. It was, in fact, estimated that the whole of this tract, comprising 138 square miles, contained only 100 souls.” He then goes on to say that due to Dr. Campbell’s (the first Superintendent) tireless effort to render Darjeeling the commercial centre of the hills, the population rapidly grew to 10,000 in 1850, 94,712 in 1871, 1,55,179 in 1881 and 2,23,314 in 1891, showing a staggering 43.4% during the decade 1981-91! According to Niraj, during the last decade if we are continuing to maintain an astounding growth rate of 40% in the Darjeeling town alone (Municipal Area?), then God help us! There is a blessing given by local Dewsey groups during Dewali which translates into “may your progeny increase and fill the hills” – are we taking this blessing too seriously? Steps must be taken to change such preposterous blessings to suit the times! I read somewhere that Darjeeling Town has the dubious distinction of having the highest population density in the world! If this is true, then it is high time that we sit up and take positive action. The town, which has an area of only 4.1 square miles, is surrounded by tea gardens, forest areas and steep unstable hills. Since it cannot expand outwards, there is no other option but to rise upwards, which explains the mushrooming of high-rise 5-8 storied concrete buildings, contravening Municipal Rules. We will have to take a holistic approach and find enough areas in the Khasmahals, Forests, defunct Tea Gardens and Wastelands suitable for setting up planned compact Satellite Townships to accommodate future urban growth and not forgetting balanced Regional Development to reduce unnecessary migration from our villages to the urban centres. IN ADDITION, THE GOVERNMENT OF WEST BENGAL CAN EXHIBIT ITS GENUINE INTEREST IN THE DARJEELING HILLS BY RECOMMENDING ONE OF THE MUNICIPALITIES FOR URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND REFORMS UNDER JAWAHARLAL NEHRU NATIONAL URBAN RENEWAL MISSION (JNNURM) IMMEDIATELY! I FAIL TO UNDERSTAND WHY DARJEELING HILL AREAS ARE NEGLECTED AND IGNORED WHEN IT COMES TO DEVELOPMENT MATTERS!!

3.Re: Maximim permissible height of buildings . An Expert Committee had been formed for framing Bye-laws for Municipalities coming under Government of West Bengal, of which I was also a Member along with (Late) Shasheesh Prasad and Mr. Tshering, Technical Adviser DGHC to represent the hills. It is true that we had fixed up 11.5 meters as the maximum permissible height of buildings in the hills of Darjeeling. This works out to37’9” – people still think in ‘feet’ and not in ‘meters’. An average floor height is 9’6”, so four stories would mean 38’0”- add to this 2’0’plinth height and the total height of the building will come to 40’0”. In view of the extreme scarcity of land in the hills, and for all practical purposes, a would-be house builder will undoubtedly go in for a 4-storied building and pay a fine for the excess height or bribe his way through. Thus 11.5m. or 37’9” is neither here nor there. Under the circumstances, I would suggest a realistic maximum height of 12.5m. (i.e. 41’0”) which would accommodate 4-stories plus plinth height, as opposed to 13.5m.(i.e. 44’3”) as desired by hill municipalities (which will actually extend to 5-stories)! Does that earn me the title of ‘Mentally Retarded’?

4.Re: Drainage System .The ‘Jhoras’ or natural hill streams form the backbone of our drainage system, but they are a neglected lot. In fact, it has been found that a majority of landslides during 2007 have been caused by ‘Jhora Erosion’. This is a massive problem – but where do we begin?. Since landslide protection has been the main plank for ‘save the hills’, I think we should start off by making a detailed inventory (supported by Mapping), of all the ‘jhoras’ within Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong Municipalities. It can be noticed that under natural conditions, rainwater partly infiltrates into the soil and is partly transported to the ‘jhoras’ as runoff. But in densely built-up areas within municipalities the infiltration part is reduced to a minimum, as entire lands are covered by buildings, roads, footpaths and cement plastered courtyards. As a result of this, additional runoff is created, which finally finds its way to the jhoras. This heavy inflow of runoff water often far exceeds the natural capacity of the jhoras, causing toe-erosion and landslides – small slips in the beginning, culminating in entire hill- slopes sliding down into the eroded jhoras with every passing monsoon. Careful insight into photographs in ‘savethehills’ website vividly show how dangerously close we all are in the hills of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong subdivisions to total disaster by landslides! The three hill municipalities of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong already have good manpower, databank, mapping and organizational structure. They can easily arrange adequate finances for the Mapping and Inventory Survey Works proposed above. We in savethehills, assisted by our supporting ‘Public Participation Units’, can ably assist them to complete the Survey and Mapping work done within the next 3 months, after which a Priliminary Action Plan can be prepared to face the next monsoon. This can be modified and fine-tuned for achieving better results in the coming years. Something is better than nothing, I presume!


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