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Char Dham roads in Uttarakhand burying natural water ways as boulders rain down

By Bharat Dogra* 

On June 7, thirteen passengers were killed when a bus plying on Shainshar-Kullu road, in Sainj Valley of Himachal Pradesh, rolled down a hill. The high death toll was caused by at least two avoidable reasons which are often seen in hilly areas. Firstly, there was delay in relief and rescue. Secondly, a landslide had thrown boulders and stones on the road but there was delay in clearing the rubble, forcing vehicles to negotiate a narrow edge.
In February in Champawat district of Uttarakhand, 14 persons died when a pick-up vehicle fell into a gorge. In May there were several fatal accidents in the state, including those involving pilgrims and tourists.
These recent accidents provide only some indication of the exceptionally high toll of human lives in road accidents in the Himalayan region. In just one state Himachal Pradesh, over 11,000 people died in more than 29,000 accidents during the last decade or so, while over 50,000 were injured.
Injuries related to road accidents are known to be seriously under-estimated in India and are likely to be even higher in hilly area accidents due to the possibilities of landslides and vehicles rolling down hillsides and other factors. Several road accident injuries are known to lead to lifelong disabilities.
In Uttarakhand the average number of fatalities works out to a little less than 1000 in a year. From January 2017 to April 2022 about 4700 deaths were reported in about 7000 accidents.
In Jammu and Kashmir when 713 road accident deaths were reported in 2021, the Deccan Herald reported on December 28 – road accident deaths 3 times the number of militancy deaths. However this was actually a year of relatively lower number of road accident deaths here, with the number being closer to 1000 in 2018 and 2019. For the entire decade the number was again close to 10,000, with many more injuries being recorded here than in other states at around 87,000.
Hence it is clear that the accident rate is exceptionally high in these Himalayan states. In the case of village roads, often the construction and maintenance of roads is poorly budgeted while buses are overloaded. In 2019 in an accident in Banjar area of Kullu district (Himachal Pradesh), 44 passengers died and 34 were injured when the overloaded bus fell into a gorge.
On the other hand, the highways are adequately budgeted but these have also become prone to high accident rate. Ravinder Kumar, a cab-operator who negotiates these on daily basis in Himachal Pradesh, gives three reasons for this.
Firstly, he says, liquor is available in abundance very close to highways and this increases the chances of drivers being under the influence of alcohol, a high risk factor on roads anywhere but even more so in hilly areas.
Secondly, he says, so many trees have been felled in the course of widening highways that the roadsides have become highly destabilized and stones and rubble keep falling on highways as a result of this. 
Thirdly, the wider newly constructed highways being amenable to high speed now, the tendency to over-speed has increased with the result that at times there are more accidents on shiny new highways than on more difficult terrain. Young motorcyclists are particularly prone to this, he says.
As I was travelling on June 26 morning from Dharampur to Parwanoo on Shimla-Parwanoo highway, suddenly about 10 motor-cyclists emerged driving at breakneck speed. One of them crashed against a road-divider and narrowly escaped. I had thought that they would soon be stopped by traffic police, but they were not, at least for a very long time, and roaring and spreading terror on the busy highway some of them could be seen much later too.
Some bridges and riversides are being damaged by excessive mining, as blasting work for dam construction are harming roads
Road construction and widening practices have been found to be faulty at several places resulting in more destabilization of hillsides and more frequent raining of stones on hills. Essential stabilization works to stabilize such sites have been often neglected or poorly constructed/maintained to cut costs. In some cases, for instance, in the case of Char Dham roads in Uttarakhand, there have been reports of natural water sources being buried in the course of road construction leading to boulders raining down later.
Some bridges and riversides are being damaged by excessive mining, while blasting work taken up for dam construction has also harmed several roads and paths. Dams and other big construction projects demand that heavy material loads and machinery have to be transported to remote areas, thereby increasing the pressure on roads and bridges here which are not used to such high loads.
There is a big rush of tourists and pilgrims concentrated heavily in certain month or weeks. To maximize earnings and save time, there is a tendency to speed up the tour to a number of places with the result that drivers are strained and tired while driving long hours.
A frequent complaint of local people is that several drivers from plains are not adequately familiar with hill conditions and violate norms of safety, endangering others as well. This is particularly true of snowfall conditions.
Clearly there is compelling need for many-sided improvements in road safety, involving several departments and securing the participation and cooperation of people. Apart from reducing the number of accidents, improvement of early rescue and treatment can also result in saving many precious human lives.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘Man over Machine’

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