Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town, facing cracks in its houses and roads from subsidence, should serve as a wake-up call for Darjeeling, experts have said, while pointing out the hill town administration’s poor track record in controlling anthropogenic pressure in the region.
Hundreds have been evacuated from the Uttarakhand town of Joshimath following the cracks, with experts attributing the phenomenon to water discharge from a burst aquifer. Scientists and citizens seeking environment-friendly development have also stated that Joshimath, located in a fragile geological terrain, is dogged by construction, growing population, tourism and other human-driven pressures without adequate precautionary counter-measures.
Darjeeling also faces similar problems, said experts in the hill town.
“Data suggests that population density within Darjeeling municipality area is 15,554 per square kilometre, making it one of the most densely populated mountain towns in the world,” said an engineer from Darjeeling who refused to be identified as he is working with the government.
“Despite this, no concrete effort has been made on precautions. Previous scares such as earthquakes and landslides have failed to shake both the administration and the public at large,” he added.
In July 2016, a four-storey building collapsed in Darjeeling town killing seven persons.
“The building collapse was probably because of shifting soil (like in Joshimath) as it was situated beside a jhora (stream),” the engineer pointed out.
Even after that incident, buildings continue to be constructed near jhoras in Darjeeling.
In 2015, the Darjeeling civic body had identified 337 illegal high rises in just eight of the 32 wards in Darjeeling.
Ajoy Edwards, whose Hamro Party won the civic elections last year but recently lost a floor test, raked up the issue on Monday. “We had tried to stop illegal constructions in Darjeeling to ensure that incidents witnessed in Joshimath do not occur here.... However, certain selfish individuals in an attempt to stop us from acting on illegal buildings are trying to topple our civic board,” said Edwards.
Darjeeling is also prone to landslides as it experiences heavy rains.
In 1968, a torrential rainfall unleashed about 20,000 landslides, killing thousands and breaching the Darjeeling-Sikkim road at more than 90 places. The region had received 1,000mm of rainfall in 52 hours “Yet, constructions on steep slopes have remained,” said an architect.
Ranjan Roy, former head of the department and professor of the geography department of North Bengal University, said the situation was alarming in the hills. “Lessons must be learnt from the Uttarakhand incident. The situation is alarming not just in Darjeeling but also in Gangtok,” said Roy.
Many also pointed out that Darjeeling falls under seismic zone IV, an earthquake-prone area.
“The mountains in Darjeeling and Sikkim are continuously being dug up. A detailed study on hydro dams and their impact on NH10, which connects Sikkim with the rest of India, should be conducted to come up with solutions before it is too late,” said another engineer.
Many argue that hydro projects had affected roads in the region, including the NH10.
A rail link between Sevokein Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkimis presently under construction.
Almost 86 per cent of the 44.98 km link will run through 14 tunnels each with a diameter of 8 metres.
Three firms from the US, Switzerland and Austria are working on this rail link. Officials of these companies had earlier told this newspaper that the route is being built taking into account seismic issues of the region that has two faultlines passing through it. “Following three years of study and running the data through our software, we have changed the alignment thrice,” a representative of one of the companies had said. “Tunnelling is a very precise job taken up factoring all situations.”