With the bodies of all the 18 persons missing in the avalanche incidence of April 23, 2021 around Sumna in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand having been recovered, dispatched back home to Jharkhand, and laid to rest, the search operation has come to an end. Amid increasing tendency of labelling every incidence as being man-made the debate on on the the causes of this avalanche is not likely to settle soon. I would however prefer calling this incidence a natural hazard, and recurrence of such incidences cannot really be ruled out.
Though caused by a natural hazard the resulting incidence or disaster cannot really be termed a natural disaster. It was indeed a man-made disaster, and could have certainly been averted with caution, and due diligence.
Avalanche, and landslide are important landform modifying geomorphic processes that have always been taking place in the mountainous regions across the globe, and driven by forces of nature these are to take place in future as well. The Himalayan region has been routinely experiencing devastation due to these – it can therefore safely be concluded that landslide or avalanche hazard in the region is high. As one introduces any infrastructure or settlement in any hazard prone region the same is exposed to the risk or being impacted by the hazards prevalent in the area. The level of risk may fluctuate from one place to other, and can certainly be brought down by appropriate prevention, and mitigation measures. What is however required first, and foremost is to be aware of the risk, and assess its magnitude. Importance of this exercise can well be understood from the very fact that “risk informed decision making” is a priority item of all disaster risk reduction related protocols and conventions including Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR).
It is worthwhile reviewing the circumstances under which this disaster took place; (i) a strategically important road (Joshimath – Malari -Girthi Dobla – Sumna – Rimkhim road) leading to Sino-Indian border is being constructed by Border Roads Organisation (BRO), (ii) there are no habitations in the vicinity of the affected area, (iii) the persons engaged in construction works are therefore recruited, and brought from outside, (iv) it is a common practice to set up temporary camps along the proposed road alignment for housing the labourers, and others engaged in the construction works, (v) location of these camps is often decided by availability of flat ground, source of water, and proximity to the construction site.
It is also important to note out here that this is not the first incidences wherein a camp established on the road side has been devastated by landslide, avalanche, or flood. In the past the region has witnessed many similar incidences, and in April 2003 an avalanche around Sumna killed 11 Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel.
Avalanche hazard, and risk in the area were thus no secret. Under such circumstances it is surprising that an agency of the state did nothing to assess avalanche hazard of the site where temporary shelters to house as many as 400 persons were constructed. It is to be noted that 400 is a large number, and not many villages of the region have that big a population. Moreover, these persons were engaged in the construction of a strategically important road, and if exposed to perils of this kind BRO could find it hard to mobilise the required manpower. This would delay the construction of this strategically important road which is detrimental to national interests.
No doubt, these were temporary structures that require no regulatory sanction before being erected, and can be compared to the temporary structures coming up at a fast pace on the roofs of the houses in our urban areas including Dehradun, without sanction of any kind from the regulatory authority- MDDA in case of Dehradun.
Would MDDA or other regulatory authority for that matter be totally absolved of its responsibility, in case these temporary structures result in an accident?
Such an incidence is highly likely during a squall or storm.
Temporary construction cannot really be an alibi for absolving responsibility, and authorities regulating construction in the urban areas should get the risk posed by the roof top temporary structures evaluated, besides regulating this practice.
Moreover, assessing hazard of mass movement, be it landslide or avalanche is relatively easy, and one does not always require the services of an expert geologist for this task. Hazard prone areas can be delineated with common sense, and good observation.
Once instability is infused in a valley slope, mass movement most of the times occurs around that very place. One can thus delineate hazard prone areas with the record of past incidences; longer the duration better the assessment. One can also look for the signatures of previous mass movement on both, the valley walls, and the valley floor. In the former these are exhibited in the form of scars, and chutes while in the latter these can be observed in the form of buried, and exposed unsorted debris, and exotic boulders.
It is also important to note that mass movement most of the times follows drainage lines or takes place around the concave bend of the valley slope. It is the concave slope that also has seepages, and sources of water, and proximity to water source is often a big incentive for siting of habitations around these vulnerable sites.
So the Sumna disaster of April 23, 2021 was caused by lapse on the part of the authorities who ignored to assess the avalanche risk, and the labour camp was thus sited at a vulnerable location. The place having been utilised for long for camping cannot really be an alibi for absolving responsibility. It is this ignorance, and casual attitude of the concerned authorities that exposed the labourers to the risk, and this is enough to establish culpability. There however exist no regulations mandating risk assessment for siting places of temporary habitations, violation of which could be put forth for initiating action.
Saving lives, and setting the house in order being the primary objective of any post-disaster review, it is strongly recommended that (i) necessary regulations be put in place for making risk assessment, and mitigation mandatory condition for erecting all structures; temporary or permanent, (ii) a concise, and practical standard operating procedure (SOP) be put in place for both implementation, and compliance, and (iii) clear accountability with stern punitive measures be put in place for violators.
It is at the same time highly recommended that rather than waiting for roof top temporary structures to cause a major mishap. the regulatory authorities act proactively, and immediately, and put in place measures for regulating these, and ensure stern compliance of the same.