Road connectivity is essential in accessing basic amenities and better life in remote hills of Uttarakhand. Particularly during medical emergencies when each and every minute counts, timely access to nearest road turns decisive factor for survival of grieving persons. For these reasons, many see road construction and connectivity as single point development agenda in rural Uttarakhand.
Syunsal village in Thailisain block of Pauri district is no exception and after years of struggle a 7 km long road is under construction here since first week of December 2021. The village is located in buffer zone of Dudhatoli reserve forest in Chauthan Patti which shares its border with Almora and Chamoli districts. The region is also birth place of several perennial streams forming Binnu river a tributary of Ramganga river.
Burying Ramganga Streams under Road debris
The villagers are overjoyed to see their long pending demand being transformed into reality, while overlooking the sheer negligence in safe disposal of road muck and debris which can cause severe damages to land, livelihoods and road project itself.
So far nearly half a dozen perennial streams and seasonal drains known as gaderas have been awfully chocked and buried under enormous amount of road muck and debris. The rest is being dumped loosely along the hill slopes affecting farming land, produces and vegetation. A pictorial report on ongoing damages and potential threats by dumping under construction road debris into streams can be seen here[i].
Not only the villagers but the road developer and the Public Works Department (PWD) officials have apparently turned blind eye to the alarming situation. The villagers were told about creation of 3 to 4 dumping yard for safe disposal of muck during initial surveys. However on ground neither a single dump yard existed nor there is any effort to recover and reuse the precious resource.
A part of same village has already been battered by cloud burst deluge[ii] only in September 2021. The scars of subsequent destruction are quite visible on ground till today and even through Google Earth satellite imagery. In such a scenario, the streams chocked and buried under road debris could prove disastrous in the coming monsoon seasons.
What is muck and debris?
The muck is comprised of loose soil of different types and debris are small and big pieces of rocks and boulders intact in surface and underneath of hill slope. However, the words muck and debris are interchangeably used collectively for loose soil, rocks and other waste. The muck and debris generally called malbas are generated when this soil and rock material is removed during slope cutting for various construction activities including roads. The topography, geology and slope angle determine the amount of muck and debris generation.
How debris are managed in rural roads construction in Uttarakhand?
Under prevalent malpractices, the muck and debris from rural road construction are disposed of carelessly along the slopes and drainage channels affecting forest land, village pasture, farmlands and streams across the state. The road planning documents do mention of muck dump yards and prohibits its disposal into water sources; on ground the contractors openly ignore the norms, plans and instructions to save on cost and escape responsibility thinking it would gradually get stabilize or wash away with run-off.
Why safe disposal of muck and debris is important?
Road construction in hilly areas cut through fragile terrain and watershed resulting in deforestation, slope instability, cutting drainage channels, drying up of water sources and disappearance of springs. The irresponsible muck dumping is seen having immediate and long term adverse impacts on local resources and water courses.
The pristine streams are turned muddy and silted up without any rains by muck disposal deteriorating water quality and stressing aquatic life. In case of landslides and flash floods which are being witnessed in increasing numbers in the state, the scale and severity of the destruction are aggravated by the dumped debris.
Few incidents of unsafe debris disposal
In July 2020, the cloud burst induced deluge[iii] in Boora Pader village of Ghat Block in Chamoli resulted in death of a villager and damages to homes, farmlands. The destruction was mainly caused by debris dumped loosely in water channels by under construction road passing above the village area.
The Maldevta area in June 2021 and the Juddo village in August 2021 both in Dehradun and Katal village under Narendar Nagar block of Tehri in August 2021 suffered damages[iv] when road debris washed away by flash flood invaded the human habitation. There are many more such incidents requiring documentation.
What is happening in Syunsal case
Surprised over state of affairs of dangerously dumped debris, Sandeep Kumar the Patwari instructed the JCB machine operator while on an officially inspection on January 30, 2022 following a villagers’ complaint: “Remove the muck from Lim Da, Khadi Da gaderas within 3 days”. The Revenue Department subsequently reported the matter to PWD recommending corrective actions. But the road developers and PWD officials have stayed indifferent so far.
The District Magistrate (DM), Pauri, Execute Engineer (EE), PWD Baijro, Disaster Management Officer (DMO) and Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) have been officially informed over the issue. The DM and EE assured of looking into the matter. However DMO K C Kala expressed surprise, claiming DMO has no business with disposal road debris into rivers turning into potential disaster threat.
Are there safe muck disposal rules by PWD?
In fact, the PWD lacks explicit rules effectively addressing the management of road muck. There is a two page guidelines on official website issued in May 2017 recommending safe disposal of road muck and debris in dumping yards. This also suggests ways to reduce muck and debris generation apart from recovery and reuse. However the guideline is limited to fine prints.
As per officials the contractors are not permitted to dump the road debris into gaderas and drainage channels. “The detailed project report based on surveys designate muck dumping sites. The officials are supposed to ensure safe muck disposal at these locations”, stated Sunil Dutt, Assistant Geologist, Pauri who is currently in-charge in Almora division.
The guidelines and norms are not covered under strict statutory compliance requirements, nor is there any credible mechanism to ensure their implementation. The local communities, the biggest stakeholders and who suffer when debris is not dumped properly, have no role.
Vision Document & Hill Roads Manual
“The Uttarakhand State Action Plan on Climate Change 2014[v] details on adverse social, financial and environmental impacts from ill planned road in rural areas which are contract driven, use heavy machinery, blasting and dispose the muck carelessly”, reveals Hemant Dhyani of Ganga Aavahan. According to Dhyani this is a vision document which the government departments, concerned agencies are supposed to follow.
“As a solution, the document has Green Roads concept which prescribes mass balancing approach with cut and fill method and does away with need of dumping yards. It also promotes use of local labour force over machines, Heat and Cold method instead of blasting”, says Dhyani adding that the Hill Road Manual[vi] by Indian Roads Congress, 1998 has set of parameters dealing with road alignment, slope angle and cutting which if adopted would make rural roads cost effective and disaster resilient.
Why ground reality is different?
“There is sheer violations of established norms across the state and the government acts as ignorant which has become a routine now” says Dr. Ravi Chopra, renowned scientist who recently resigned from Supreme Court appointed High Power Committee dealing with similar issues in application of All Weather Char Dham Road Project of Uttarakhand. As per Dr. Chopra the standard procedure in big road projects is that after DPR estimating amount of muck generation, forest department approves the dumping sites where it should be dumped.
“Dumping yards also are not for dump and forget, but a site from where it can be recovered and reused as it’s not a waste material but a precious resource” Chopra adds. Dhyani has been advocating these methods among administration and local communities in Bhagarithi Eco-Sensitive zone in Uttarakashi and has faced both resistance and success. Both the experts are concerned over non-implementation of these parameters across the state as the contractor lobby is quite powerful with no effective mechanism for public scrutiny and accountability.
The villagers undoubtedly deserve better accessibility through roads and other means to avail basic medical, education, employment generation facilities. However the careless handling of road muck and debris is increasingly seen causing more damages than benefits to the water and land resources, infrastructure and even people during and after construction work. At the same time there are sound and simple solutions available, application of which during planning and execution stages can prevent immediate and lasting adverse impacts from rural road debris to great extent. Provided the government and concerned departments are sincere and serious in their approach. Provided there are statutory norms and effective role for the local communities. Provided there is credible monitoring and compliance mechanisms.
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)