On the morning of June 17, it was raining heavily when a family of five sat down to have breakfast in Kenmynsaw village in Meghalaya’s East Khasi village. The rainfall triggered landslides in the area.

As they heard the rumble of a landslide, 54-year-old Drit Byrsaw and her 56-year-old husband Robino Kynter asked the three children – their daughter and two nieces – to move from the old kitchen to a newly constructed building close by. Kynter and his wife went back to the kitchen to get a bag of rice, G Kharkongor, a government official who handles the development activities of the village, told Scroll.in.

“When they tried to pull the bag, the first landslide came and took away the mother,” said Kharkongor. “Within minutes another landslide came and took him [Kynter] away also.”

Kenmynsaw village is about 7-km from Mawsynram, one of the wettest places on earth. Even by Mawsynram’s standards, the rainfall that morning was extreme.

The Guwahati regional weather forecasting centre’s records show that the region received 1,003.6 millimetres of rainfall between June 16 and June 17, which is the highest ever 24-hour rainfall recorded in Mawsynram, surpassing the previous record of 945.4 millimetres of 1966.

Byrsaw and Kynter were taking care of their own daughter as well as the two nieces who had lost their parents. Apart from the elderly couple, 32 others have been killed while 11 are still missing since April 1 due to landslides and floods in Meghalaya, according to a statement issued by the state disaster management authority on June 23.

Over 4,000 houses have been damaged, of which 250 were completely destroyed. Altogether more than 6.33 lakh residents in 930 villages of 11 districts have been affected in the state.

In Mawsynram, road and mobile network connectivity had not been restored fully till June 24. Local residents are struggling to grasp the fury and scale of devastation.

Widespread devastation

Between June 1-22, Meghalaya recorded 161% more rain – 1,314.4 millimetres of rainfall against the normal rainfall of 503.1 millimetres.

Referring to the landslides in Kenmynsaw, Kharkongor said that such an incident has happened for the first time. “...The soil is quite firm as they used to plant bamboo,” he said, referring to the thick vegetation and plantation in Kenmynsaw, which is popular for bamboo craft. “I don’t know why this year’s landslides occurred…maybe because of [the] rains, or [the] mud got heavier.”

Kharkongor said what destroyed the couple’s home was a mudslide of sorts but “quite big”. “…By the force of gravity and the volume of the mudslides, it was enormous. It just took them away within minutes,” he said.

In the East Khasi Hills alone, where Kenmynsaw is located, nine residents were killed on June 17 in landslides at Dangar, Boro Ryngku, Betgora, according to a statement by district deputy commissioner Isawanda Laloo. Apart from the elderly couple, one person each was killed in Boro Ryngku, Betgora.

Five of a family died in Dangar. Kyllity Langpen, 32, and her four minor children, including a six-month-old, were killed in landslides after their house collapsed due to heavy rainfall around 6pm at Dangar village. Scroll.in tried contacting the Dangar village headman, but the network connectivity in the area had not been restored as on June 25.

On June 20, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma visited Mawsynram block and handed over a letter sanctioning ex gratia to the next of kin of the families killed in the landslides.

Elsewhere in Meghalaya, the South Garo Hills along the India-Bangladesh border is one of the worst-hit districts. Road connectivity through NH62 was cut off from June 17-23, affecting 40,000 residents.

Siju, a tourist spot known for bat caves, in the South Garo Hills district, was devastated. A resident, 29-year-old Ralseng Mark, told Scroll.in on Friday that the destruction has been unprecedented and that the mobile network had still not been restored.

“Flash floods and landslides devastated the whole region... [we] have not witnessed such destruction,” said Mark, who has been residing in Shillong since June 19.

He said that residents living close to the Simsang river were affected by flash floods while those residing in the upper region were hit by landslides. “Many houses [were] washed away by flash floods and residents also died in the landslides.”

According to government data, eight people were killed in the South Garo Hills district in Bolsalgre, Siju and Rongsa Awe till June 20. Among the deceased is a four-year-old child.

State blames excess rain

The Meghalaya government has written to the Centre seeking financial assistance of Rs 300 crore. “The rain has been unprecedented, in some areas, it has broken records of the past 40 years,” a statement shared with Scroll.in quoted chief minister Sangma as saying. “This is real heavy rain, which was not expected.”

According to Sangma, the deluge has damaged major highways and key connecting roads in rural parts, and bridges. On June 22, Sangma inspected NH62 that connects Siju, Karukol and Baghmara from Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills to neighbouring Assam and expressed shock at the “unimaginable” damage.

Sangma’s statement said that over a seven to eight km stretch, the roads resemble large streams in 12 different parts while huge boulders lie around.

Destruction in Siju district in Meghalaya. Credit: Conrad Sangma via Twitter.

According to Sangma, the residents of Siju said that they have never seen such heavy rains, landslides since the past 50 years. “Some said that in 1964 there was a similar situation in Siju but the magnitude of damages was not as intense as this year,” said Sangma. “The water level of the Simsang river was as high as 30 feet higher than the usual monsoon days near Siju Cave.”

Speaking to Scroll.in on June 20, Meghalaya Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui blamed the “unprecedented and sudden” rainfall for the landslide and floods. “It is a natural calamity,” he said. Rymbui said many villages are along the slope of the mountains. “We can’t say it is a man-made disaster. The government is doing whatever needs to be done to help the affected.”

Mining, road widening

While the state government has blamed the unprecedented rain for the landslides and flooding, experts and those on the ground say otherwise. They blamed administrative failure, illegal construction, unregulated mining and structural problems for aggravating the situation.

Angela Rangad, an activist and member of Thma U Rangli Juki, a civil society organisation, termed the government’s reasoning “hogwash”. “We have had rains like this earlier too,” she told Scroll.in, “But what we have seen in the last few years is that there is a correlation between unplanned, ecologically destructive infrastructure, especially roads, and rise in murderous landslides and flash floods.”

According to Rangad, roads are being expanded because there is “money to be made”, and to provide connectivity for the mining economy.

Rangad said that in the Khasia-Jaintia Hills, the destruction caused by rainfall is more where roads are being expanded, or spots where land has been hollowed out for mining and quarrying. “Traditional road-making was at least concerned with the lay of the land/hills and planned for water run-offs and strengthening of exposed hillsides,” said Rangad.

Geologist Devesh Walia, who teaches at North-Eastern Hill University, said that Meghalaya is prone to landslides because of the rock-type of the region. Shaky rocks or debris are more prone to landslides.

But, according to Walia, during this monsoon season, landslides took place in areas where they are uncommon. Walia said this indicates that slopes are being destabilised or cut-off due to construction practices without considering the geology of the area. “Because of that, more sliding has occurred during this time.”

Walia said that local residents used traditional knowledge to check landslides: downhill, stones and walls are used to control the terrain. But now, because of different construction practices, they are no longer putting up such retaining walls.

Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, said that in times of climate change, there has been more rain than usual. “But most landslides occur because buildings and roads have been constructed without regulation,” said Mukhim. “Nothing is regulated in Meghalaya.”

Mukhim also said the state has no land-use policy. “…If you want to build, you can build a building on agricultural land. You can cut down a forest and build something.” Nobody follows regulations and now we are paying the price, she said.

Mukhim observed that most of the devastation has been in the Garo Hills while some of the roads collapsed in Jaintia Hills where coal is found. “People tend to dig anywhere and everywhere,” she said. “Sometimes people dig from underneath and suddenly they find a road, roof or a home on the top.”

She said that despite the state being in a seismic zone, geologists are not consulted while constructing roads. Then there is also corruption, she said.

“It is an accumulation of all the wrongdoing and the poor people are paying the price.”