Baban Sapkal gazed at the remnants of what was once his home in the Western Ghats. We were standing atop a forested hill in Taliye, a village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. Wisps of clouds shed light rain on the slope, where Sapkal brings his cattle to graze every day.

On July 22, 2021, at 4.30 pm, a large mass of land had broken free from the hill where we now stood, and buried Kondhalkar hamlet, part of Taliye village, which lay on the slope. Out of 55 houses, only three houses and Sapkal’s cattle shed survived.

“I remember there was heavy rain,” Sapkal said. “I was sleeping when some men from the village came running to alert me that a few boulders had fallen from the hill.” When he stepped out, he found that the afternoon was cloudy, with poor visibility. “Those men were going to other houses when...” he paused, his eyes turning moist, “when a wave of soil and trees swept them away.”

“So many people I knew all my life died within minutes,” the 75-year-old said.

Baban Sapkal survived the Taliye landslide and now lives with his family in a shipping container. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

The landslide killed 87 people, including those men. The bodies of 31 people were never found. The 135 villagers who survived moved out immediately. Their huts had been reduced to a heap of debris.

The government set up a colony of white-and-green shipping containers as temporary homes less than a kilometre away. For two years, one such container, starkly different from the dusty-brown brick-and-mud huts that dot most villages in Raigad, has been home for Sapkal, his wife and son. It has a carpeted room and an attached bathroom.

The containers are small, so Sapkal’s wife Banubai has erected a tarpaulin shed outside to store utensils and spices. Before the landslide, “We had a cattle shed, rooms and a courtyard to store fodder,” Banubai said. “Now we have to adjust in this tiny room.”

The toilet, attached to the container, stinks. “We were used to having a toilet outside the house, not inside,” Banubai said, crinkling her nose.

The nightmare returned to Raigad this year. On July 19, Irshalwadi village, around 110 km from Taliye, saw a major landslide, which killed 84 people, including 57 whose bodies were never found in the debris, and who were declared dead by the district administration.

These landslides have destabilised the lives of the people of Raigad, and left them with a persistent sense of dread.

The Geological Survey of India has listed 103 villages in the district as being vulnerable to landslides. It has advised the government that 27 of these villages will have to be shifted eventually – six are at extreme risk and need immediate attention.

Among the six are Bhisewadi and Sutarwadi, located 30 km from Taliye.

This July, about 100 people from the two hamlets lived in five classrooms of a government school for 20 days. Santosh Bhise, a resident of Bhisewadi, said that people would leave the classroom during the day to allow students to study, and return at night to sleep in cramped spaces.

They did this because the Raigad collector issued a warning in early July to both hamlets, stating that heavy rains were expected to lash the hills, leading to a risk of landslide, and advising people to leave the village.

Bhise, a rice cultivator, packed his mattress and bedsheet. Bhisewadi itself is on flat land, but is nestled amidst hills on two sides and abuts a stream on the third. Bhise’s backyard faces a steep slope. “If there is a landslide, mine will be the first house to get wiped away,” he said.

Saving their lives was more important than saving their house. “If I survive, I can still beg and get food for my family,” Bhise reasoned.

As August crept in and rainfall subsided, villagers gradually went back to their houses. But the classrooms still have mattresses and bedsheets tucked away in a corner. “Every time it rains heavily, we rush back to the school,” said Surekha Kadam, a gram panchayat member in Sutarwadi.

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Since 2021, across Raigad, several villages have emptied out every monsoon. Their residents either sleep in temple compounds, schools, or open pastures. “We live in constant fear,” Sutarwadi resident Pooja Pawar said.

Raigad lies in the Western Ghats, also known as the Sahyadris, the hill range that runs parallel to India’s west coast. It is one of the most landslide-prone regions in the country. A study that analysed data sets from around the world listed India as among the top four countries that faced risks of landslides. The National Remote Sensing Centre at the Indian Space Research Organisation has recorded 80,933 landslides in the country between 2000 and 2022. Within the Western Ghats, the Geological Survey of India has notified 90,000 square kilometres as landslide prone.

“Something is wrong with the Western Ghats lately,” said Yusuf Kabir, who heads climate, environment, and emergency response for UNICEF in Maharashtra. “They have become unstable and it is not sudden. Several factors are at play here.”

Data gathered by ISRO and the Geological Survey confirms Kabir’s observations, and reveals an astronomical rise in recorded landslides in recent years. In Kerala, for instance, ISRO recorded nine landslides in 2014, and 45 in 2017 – in 2018, that number shot up to 5,181. Similarly, it recorded 82 and 19 landslides in Karnataka in 2014 and 2017, but recorded 993 in 2018. Maharashtra saw a similarly staggering rise – from 97 in 2014 and three in 2017 to 5,012 in 2021.

Over the last decade, the state has seen 24 major landslides, which have occurred in the districts of Mumbai, Raigad, Pune, Satara, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg – these have resulted in the loss of nearly 600 lives, data from the state’s disaster, relief and rehabilitation department shows.

In September 2021, the state government sanctioned a package of Rs 3,200 crore to tackle disasters in the Konkan region, in which Raigad falls. “Out of that, Rs 1,010 crore is for Raigad,” said Sagar Pathak, the district’s disaster management officer. This money will be spent on providing relief during floods, cyclones and landslides, as well as on steps to mitigate the damage they can cause, such as removing large boulders from hills that have villages at their base. It will also be used for rehabilitation measures, like building shelter homes.

A short distance from Taliye village, a makeshift colony of shipping containers has sprung up to house the survivors of the 2021 landslide. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

But such measures will not suffice for villages that are extremely vulnerable to landslides – for them, the solution the government has settled on is to permanently shift them to safer areas.

So far, the government has moved slowly on such relocation work – none of the six villages the Geological Survey identified as being at greatest risk of landslides, nor the 97 that are vulnerable to them, have been shifted. On August 15, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde assured Irshalwadi survivors that permanent homes would be built for them within six months. But August 15 was also the deadline by which the state government promised to rehabilitate survivors of the two-year-old Taliye landslide. That deadline, itself an extension from deadlines several months earlier, was also missed.

“Every few months we hear of a new deadline to shift us. Then it is delayed,” Banubai said. Her neighbour Sakharam Hondalkar said, “Till date, our lives remain disrupted.”

But the state’s challenge isn’t just limited to relocating a few villages. Identifying which villages are vulnerable itself has proved to be difficult. Neither Taliye nor Irshalwadi were counted among vulnerable villages – till a landslide flattened them out.

Soon after the Taliye landslide, the Maharashtra government commissioned two non-profit organisations, Unicef and Acwadam, to visit the districts of Raigad, Pune, and Satara to identify areas vulnerable to landslides, and recommend methods of mitigating the risks they faced.

Until then, the area had only been surveyed by the Geological Survey, which had not identified Taliye or Irshalwadi as being vulnerable to a landslide.

“If Irshalwadi was not in the list and a landslide has still occurred, then either GSI is yet to assess that region or the entire methodology of risk analysis is questionable,” said Ulka Mahajan, a tribal rights activist in Raigad. “We need more scientific means of assessing risk and greater need to avoid rampant development.”

Senior geologist Parmita Dasarwar of the Geological Survey explained that the organisation assesses vulnerability based on set geological parameters. “If it doesn’t fall into those parameters, we do not label it as vulnerable,” she said.

She added that Geological Survey, on the request of the district collector, had begun a fresh survey of Raigad after the 2021 landslide. “The report on it is being prepared,” she said.

Gurudas Nulkar, an ecologist who was part of the expert team formed by Acwadam and Unicef, explained that while the Geological Survey usually focuses on geological factors, the expert committee also looked at hydrogeology, ecology, water drainage systems and rainfall. They suspected there was more at play than unstable soil and rocks here.

The team visited seven blocks in Raigad, Pune, Satara and Ratnagiri. They discovered something disturbing – up till that point, only landslides in Taliye, Govele Sutarwadi and Kevanale had made the news due to the loss of human lives, but evidence such as people’s accounts and ground observations indicated that the region had witnessed a far higher number of landslides. In fact, the survey estimated that in a short span of 14 hours between July 22 and July 23, 2021, between 5,000 and 10,000 major and minor landslides and mudslides had occurred in mountains stretching across Maharashtra.

“This is a huge number,” Nulkar said.

A photograph taken by an expert team shows the impact of a landslide in the Western Ghats. Photo: Acwadam

Two experts who were part of the committee and an advisor to the committee told Scroll that water and trees played a huge role in these landslides, a fact that earlier government surveys had not clearly established. “These landslides were preceded by an intense spell of rainfall that continued for several days,” Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, director of the NGO Acwadam, said.

In the two days leading up to the landslides, he said, locals reported unusual occurrences, such as overflowing wells, new spring discharges from hills, old springs seeing higher discharge, and rise in the temperature of spring water – all pointing to a change in underground water flow.

Kabir, from Unicef, explained that this region of the Western Ghats is made up of basalt soil that absorbs and discharges water quickly. “Heavy rains for several days means the soil is quickly discharging this water into the aquifers,” or underground water between rocks and sediments, he said.

When there is excess rainfall, the soil becomes saturated, he noted. In such a situation, “There is pressure of heavy rainfall from top soil, and there is subsurface pressure building from within due to the aquifer,” he said. “This hydraulic pressure can cause the land to slide.”

The team also studied the correlation between trees, wind and soil. “Our observation was that all landslides happened in thickly wooded areas, ones heavily forested,” said Nulkar, who also heads the Centre for Sustainable Development in the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics.

Though trees are normally expected to bind soil, there was evidence that tall trees with deep roots were loosening the soil. Nulkar explained how. The Sahyadris experience high wind velocity, he said, and “the speed of wind rocks the tall trees causing it to sway from top to bottom”. The swaying motion leads to a transfer of energy from the tree to its root mass.

“Now during heavy rains, the swaying of trees further loosens the soil,” Nulkar added. “The heavy rains saturate the soil and eventually causes the land to slide.”

Balaji Vharkat, programme officer of climate change, environment and disaster in Unicef, noted that these factors were massively exacerbated by “unscientific development” in the region.

This includes quarrying activity in the Raigad hills to extract earth for construction purposes. He said that when a part of a hill’s base is shaved off during such quarrying, the hill becomes weak. A large portion of this work is being undertaken for a new Mumbai-Goa highway that will snake through the hills, cutting into the Sahyadri range and passing right through Raigad, pointed out Ulka Mahajan.

The new Mumbai-Goa highway, still under construction, cuts through the hills in Raigad. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

Ecologist Madhav Gadgil told Scroll he had warned the Maharashtra government against rampant development in these fragile hills many years ago in a landmark report. The Gadgil report, which was submitted to the government in 2011 and became public in 2012, urged the government to declare the ghats an ecologically sensitive zone and stop development projects in them.

“They did not seem keen on implementing our recommendations,” Gadgil said. “Development projects seemed more important than saving the Western Ghats.”

While the landslides in Bhisewadi and Sutarwadi in 2021 narrowly missed houses, they destroyed sizeable farmlands and killed four bulls and 15 goats.

Santosh Bhise pointed to a large tract of land with overgrown grass and large boulders. “I used to grow rice there,” he said. The land would produce 10 quintals of rice each year. But the landslide deposited large rocks and soil on his farm, making the land unsuitable for farming.

“The government paid Rs 10,000 as compensation. My loss was bigger,” Bhise said. But the lack of compensation does not bother him as much as the absence of rehabilitation measures.

Kulkarni, director of Acwadam, told Scroll that a landslide could occur anytime in this area during heavy rainfall. In 2022, fearing such an occurrence, residents of Bhisewadi left their home for three months during the monsoons. Suvarna Bhise, aged 45, said the taluka office assured the villagers that they would be reimbursed the rent they paid elsewhere.

Four members of her family moved into a one-bedroom flat in Kativade village and paid Rs 2,500 a month, apart from electricity bills totalling to Rs 700. “Till date the rent amount has not been reimbursed,” she said.

This year, when the collector’s office asked people to vacate their homes due to heavy rainfall, people were hesitant.

“We can’t afford to live on rent for so many months,” Suvarna Bhise said. It was in response to such concerns that the administration converted the primary school in the village, considered to be in a safe zone, into a shelter for residents of both Bhisewadi and Sutarwadi. The district officials arranged for rations so that women could cook food in the school.

Even after the residents of Bhisewadi and Sutarwadi returned home, mattresses and food rations remained stacked in a school classroom, for future use. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

But the arrangements left much to be desired. Suvarna said she would run back home for a bath whenever rainfall stopped since the school did not have any bathing facilities.

Near Bhisewadi, residents of Sutarwadi, which saw land subsidence in 2005, then a landslide in 2021, are also struggling with the question of rehabilitation and relief. “A part of that hill is unstable,” said Suresh Pawar, who is 50, pointing to slopes above where the hamlet stands. “If it falls, the entire village will be wiped out.”

The 2021 landslide had damaged Suresh Pawar’s crops. “We registered a panchnama at the local police station,” he said. “District officials assured us of a compensation but nothing has come.” He said he suffered a loss of Rs 25,000. “That year we had no income from our land,” he recalled.

Surekha Kadam, the gram panchayat member, said district officials had compensated some residents, but not others, who lacked proof of land ownership. “District officials have repeatedly assured villagers of rehabilitating them to a safer area over multiple visits in the last two years,” she said.

A plot has been identified to rehabilitate residents of both Sutarwadi and Bhisewadi. But the process has suffered significant delays. Pawar said he has been hearing about relocation plans for two years. “We have no option but to wait,” he said.

Mahesh Titole, the tehsildar of Mahad, under which the villages fall, told Scroll at the end of July that they had submitted a proposal to shift 10 villages. “The government returned the earlier proposal with some queries,” he said. “We have answered them and submitted a fresh proposal last week.”

Pathak, the district’s disaster management officer, said that relocation was a complex process. “Some villagers protest that the new land is far from their farms,” he said. “They don’t want to leave the source of their livelihood. Some have demanded that they want to temporarily shift into shelters every monsoon. It is difficult to bring everyone to a consensus.”

Raigad collector Yogesh Mhase said it was not possible to shift every village that is vulnerable to a landslide. “For now we are focusing on six villages that GSI has flagged,” Mhase said. “In other places we are incorporating other measures.”

These include the removal of large and loose boulders from hills which have villages at their base, preserving the natural routes of streams and rivers, and stopping mining in hills where there are habitations.

Further, from the Rs 1,010 crore allocated to it from the state’s Konkan disaster management package, the Raigad administration plans to create over 100 shelters, some within schools. The Maharashtra government has already sanctioned Rs 107 crore for this work. The government has also sanctioned another Rs 700 crore to lay underground electricity cables to avoid power disruptions during landslides and cyclones.

The administration is also training locals in management during disasters to minimise loss of life. “State disaster relief force needs to repeatedly train villagers in identifying signs that can hint towards a landslide,” Vharkat from Unicef said.

An individual involved in this training work told Scroll that this year, the disaster cell had trained 7,900 people in responding to disasters. But, they added, this training was focused more on measures to undertake after a disaster, not detecting early warning signs before one.

Some NGOs have also taken up this work. Chandrakant Gaikwad, a member of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, a tribal rights organisation, said until locals were provided with better housing or rehabilitated to safer areas, organisations such as his were working on training them to identify signs of impending landslides so that they can evacuate dangerous areas quickly. “We explain what indications to look for,” he said. “Rise in water level in wells, new springs, increased discharge of springs are all indicators.”

Mahesh Kamble, assistant professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said that there were additional measures the administration could consider adopting to minimise the risk to villages in the region, including changes to agricultural and construction practices. Kamble gave the example of Odisha, where some farmers reduced crop damage caused by cyclones by using traditional seeds that are not as easily damaged. “In vulnerable zones, pucca houses can replace kuchha ones if relocation is not possible,” he said. “At least then they have a chance of minimum damage.”

Kamble said rehabilitation is successful only if all villagers are brought together for discussion and their opinion is factored in. “The locals know what is best for them, not the government,” he pointed out.

Baban Sapkal’s cattle shed remains in the old Taliye village. Every day he walks from the containers to the village to take the cattle out for grazing.

Just next to the containers, the state government has acquired around 15 hectares of land for rehabilitation. Village officials told Scroll that the administration plans to build 271 two-bedroom houses here in phases to first rehabilitate villagers of Kondharkar hamlet, and then five other hamlets of Taliye village that are at risk of landslides.

So far, in two years, 66 houses have been constructed, the walls made using pre-fabricated material.

Sakharam Hondalkar, aged 55, is unhappy with the pre-fabricated material. “If there is need of maintenance in future, how will we do it? We are tribals, we only understand mud and brick.”

An on-site project manager, requesting anonymity, however, said that the new houses have a sturdy base and will withstand landslides. “Villagers are complaining over small issues despite getting such beautiful houses,” the official said.

The Maharashtra government has built new houses to resettle the survivors of Taliye landslide. But the village residents are unhappy with the pre-fabricated material used for the construction. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

Even so, locals cannot move in for now because the houses have no water supply. A water tank is under construction on the new site.

These empty newly constructed houses are serving others purposes for now. At night, people from Shindewadi hamlet, located on a slope opposite Kondharkar, sneak in to sleep in them. “People living on that hill fear for their life during heavy rains,” said sarpanch Sampat Tandlekar. “At night they sleep in the new houses to avoid getting killed in a landslide.”

“A few days ago, some boulders fell from the hill,” he added. “It made everyone rush out.”

Two years since the Taliye landslide, there are still remnants of the mishap in Kondharkar – old footwear strewn across in mud, half buried houses, a toppled steel almirah, uprooted trees and an empty water tank. The rest of the village is buried underneath wild grass.

The three houses that were unharmed lie abandoned. The only other sign left of the village is a stone memorial built by the Maharashtra government to pay respect to the dead.

The remnants of the 2021 landslide, where Taliye village once stood. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.