It was an August evening last year, and sarpanch Kavita and her family had just wound up celebrations of the Raksha Bandhan festival in Anji village in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district. She was standing on the roof of her house, when she suddenly noticed a commotion some distance away. Up the slope of the kutcha road to their house, she saw that two cars appeared to have crashed down onto the road from an elevated metalled road above.

When Kavita and her family rushed to the spot, they realised that a portion of the elevated four-lane highway, inaugurated in 2021, had caved in, bringing down with it boulders, rocks, mud, and the two cars.

“Luckily, people got out of the cars unhurt and thankfully, none of our neighbours had taken their cows to graze on the slope that day,” said Kavita, who goes by a single name, as she stood at the site a year later, on this year’s Raksha Bandhan festival.

In August 2022, sarpanch Kavita had finished celebrating Rakshabandhan at her home in Anji village, when a portion of an elevated four-lane nearby collapsed, causing two cars to crash down. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The four-lane highway – commonly known just as a four-lane – that had collapsed connects Parwanoo, a town in Himachal Pradesh on the border with Haryana to the town of Solan, and beyond, to the state capital of Shimla.

While work is still continuing on the 50-km stretch between Solan and Shimla, the four-lane between Parwanoo and Solan was opened to traffic in June 2021, after an existing 12-metre wide road was widened to 24 metres, with two lanes each for incoming and outgoing traffic.

However, portions of the completed four-lane have had to be closed off every now and then because of recurring landslides which experts say have been exacerbated by unscientific slope-cutting. The problems grew much worse this year when Himachal Pradesh was battered by unusually heavy rainfall in July and August.

Several portions of the Parwanoo four-lane caved in, leaving the road strewn with boulders, stones and mud. At Chakki Modh, around 8 km from Parwanoo, traffic flow was halted for a week as a result of a massive landslide, forcing commuters to take an alternate route.

At Chakki Modh, an area around 8 km from Parwanoo, traffic flow was halted for a week in July as a result of a massive landslide, and commuters were forced to take an alternate route. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

These problems aren’t limited to just the Parwanoo-Shimla four-lane.

Currently, Himachal Pradesh has four other four-lane projects under different phases of construction across districts – all being built by the National Highway Authority of India, an agency of the central government. These connect Pinjore to Baddi and Nalagarh; Shimla to Mataur; Pathankot to Mandi; and Garamaura, Sawarghat and Mandi to Manali.

During this year’s heavy rains, apart from the Parwanoo-Shimla four-lane, the Pathankot-Mandi highway also saw damage in several stretches, as did the Kiratpur-Manali stretch.

This destruction occurred even as the state saw much more widespread landslides – within just 55 days early in the monsoon this year, Himachal witnessed 113 landslides, which destroyed homes, shops, hotels and other structures. A total of 111 people were killed in the state in landslides, according to the state’s disaster management authority.

The four-laning work has come in for blame for some of the devastation. Himachal Pradesh’s chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu connected the landslides to road construction work, saying the NHAI’s engineers “need to cut the mountains more scientifically”.

Such criticisms of four-laning in Himachal Pradesh are not new. In a 2015 report, the Himachal Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority noted that besides deforestation and heavy rainfall, “road construction itself” was found to be a “main cause of slope instability”, resulting in “varieties of landslide movements”.

In response to the recent landslides, the NHAI has argued that it is relatively inexperienced in building roads in the mountains. In August this year, its regional head said that the Parwanoo-Solan stretch had been a “learning experience for the authority”.

The former deputy mayor of Shimla Municipal Corporation, Tikender Singh Panwar, rubbished this reasoning. “This cannot be an alibi, it’s sheer stupidity,” Panwar said. He argued that projects to build roads in the Himalayas were hardly new. He reasoned that if the NHAI considered itself inexperienced, it should not have taken up the work, and that other road-building organisations in the state, such as the Border Roads Organisation and the Himachal PWD “would have done a far better job”.

When Scroll travelled along the Parwanoo-Solan four-lane a few weeks after a spell of devastating rains in August, boulders and muck lay on the highway at almost every 1.5 km, limiting the use of the full road and forcing traffic into two lanes at many points. Repair work in the wake of these landslides has contributed to the escalating cost of the project. While the project’s original cost in 2015 was Rs 934 crore, by 2022 repeated landslides led to an escalation of costs by 65%, to Rs 1,541 crore. In February this year, the NHAI released a tender for about Rs 122 crore for “slope protection work” at 32 vulnerable locations on the route.

A portion of road in Sujji that caved in in the monsoon this year. The NHAI has argued that it is relatively inexperienced in building roads in the mountains, a defence rejected by experts. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Beyond what the NHAI has had to spend are the hidden costs borne by locals.

“The four-lane has become a resource, but it has also brought so many disadvantages,” said 21-year-old Shivom, a resident of Sujji village. Shivom’s house is situated off the Solan four-lane, and suffered extensive damage in July, after a portion of the road caved in and water from the rain gushed onto his house.

“When the road began its construction, we had already started noticing cracks in our homes,” Shivom said. “We communicated this to the NHAI constantly, but there was no action from them.”

Scroll emailed questions about the damage caused by four-laning work and the poor planning of the projects to the NHAI – as of publication, the authority had not responded.

Shivom and many others told Scroll that while rainfall was heavier than usual this year and created the conditions for land to slip and boulders to fall, landslides along the highway have occurred frequently since the widening process began, even in years with less rainfall.

His mother joined in the conversation. “All this damage that you see, is all because of the four-lane,” she said, pointing towards their battered house. “Four-laning belongs to the plains, not in the mountains.”

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To widen a mountain road, the slope of the mountain above the road needs to be cut away. If the slope is cut too steeply, the area becomes susceptible to landslides. “A lot of the mountain faces have been cut straight, at 90 degrees,” said Bhuvwan Thakur, an advocate and resident of Anji, pointing to many such slopes around us.

A 2023 paper examined 11 slopes along the highway from Solan to Shimla. The authors noted that to widen roads, slopes are commonly excavated through drilling and blasting operations. According to the paper, the “suggested stable excavation angle” of the slopes – that is, the acute angle between the flat road and the slope – was between 48 degrees and 75 degrees.

“If the slope is very steep and the debris above it is fragile, then external movements can cause landslides,” said Dr Kanwarpreet Singh, a professor in the department of civil engineering at Chandigarh University. “Even if a heavy truck passes or an earthquake occurs, then those rock boulders could come down.”

Other factors can also increase the risk of landslides: a 2022 paper that Singh co-authored, which assessed a stretch of the Parwanoo-Kasauli road, found that 74% of the area was covered with fine loamy soil, which is more likely to slide.

A landslide between Solan and Shimla. A 2023 paper found the “suggested stable excavation angle” of slopes – the acute angle between the road and slope – was between 48 and 75 degrees. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

For 78-year-old Madan Singh, the fear that his house will be washed away in a landslide looms large. His house in the village of Nasal now sits precariously on the edge of an almost vertical drop – the slope under it was cut to widen the four-lane below. On the day of my visit, he had covered the boundary wall of his house that faced the valley with a tarpaulin. “To prevent the rain from washing away the slope, just in case,” he explained.

He bemoaned the fact that after cutting away the mountain, the NHAI had only built a short retaining wall to support the slope above. “Even this, the NHAI constructed after many arguments and follow-ups,” Madan said. He added, “But even then, they constructed a wall of just three metres height, while the slope was cut much more. They have not built the correct height to prevent the mountain from coming down.”

In early 2019, after the road widening began below, Madan started noticing cracks in his house, which he attributed to the constant drilling and vibrations that accompanied the widening. “While so far there has not been a landslide, there is always a constant fear,” Madan said, counting instances of people he knew whose homes came down with landslides after the four-lane was constructed.

He has planted a few bushes along the edge of his house “to prevent landslides”, he said. “The roots of bushes will keep the soil intact.”

Madan Singh’s house in Nasal now stands at the end of an almost vertical slope. After cutting away the mountain, the NHAI only built a short retaining wall to support the slope above. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

An official who works closely on four-lane construction projects admitted that slope-cutting had not been carried out properly on this stretch. If a slope is cut at 90 degrees, the soil and rock above “is not concrete or cement that it will remain standing”, he said, requesting anonymity since he was not authorised to speak with the media. “We’ll be living in fool’s paradise if we believe so.”

He added that apart from cutting slopes at the wrong angle, massive tree-felling that had accompanied the work had also loosened the soil. “When the detailed project report was first made for this project, it stated that 2,700 trees would be cut for this widening,” he said. “But today, I can confidently say that more than 10,000 trees have been cut.”

Even the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out in reports assessing the Parwanoo-Solan highway that conditions upon which the environment clearance was granted to the project were not being met. A 2017 CAG report noted that there was “unscientific and unregulated digging” along the road maintained by NHAI, which had “resulted in a landslide near Saproon Chowk” in Solan.

To avoid such landslides and damages from happening, Singh argued that there was a need for preliminary investigations and surveys of roads and surrounding landscape before any project was begun. “Based on these investigations, mitigation measures can be decided,” he said. He explained that such surveys could help provide an understanding of the stability of the slope, as well as characteristics of the soil, such as cohesion, unit weight, and friction. Many four-lane projects in the state were being undertaken without such investigations, he said.

The problem of landslides along the four-lane extended to even the stretch beyond Solan, which is “80% completed”, according to the official at the district office. Compared to the stretch up till Solan, this portion was much dustier as a result of the ongoing construction, and traffic was being stopped at various places to make way for rollers and JCBs.

Ravi Bhardwaj, a taxi driver whose services I engaged, showed me many stretches of the road that had been opened after construction for traffic, but had had to be closed again after recurrent landslides. At Kandaghat, about 15 km from Solan, Suresh Sharma, a farmer, lost a portion of his crop after a bout of heavy rain this year washed it down the slope. The slope had been cut earlier for the four-lane widening work.

“They made such small retaining walls, which could not hold the falling mountain,” he said. He added that even a natural spring up on the slope had collapsed with a landslide a few years ago, after construction started.

As we drove along the four-lane, Bhardwaj pointed out several bricked retaining walls that had come down, leaving boulders, rocks, and mud that blocked one side of the four-lane in multiple places. He said, “Ab pahad ko kaun rok sakta hai!” – who can stop the mountains!

The widespread destruction was also exacerbated by poor planning of water drainage while widening roads. Adjacent to the four-lane in the village of Sujji, two multi-storied houses and a hotel lay unoccupied, completely battered. All three structures were extensively damaged by water that gushed into them during rains, as a result of road-widening activity.

When roads are widened in mountainous areas, culverts play an important role in directing water flowing down the mountain into proper drainage systems along the road. Their absence, as the environment impact assessment report of another four-lane project in Himachal Pradesh noted, can lead to “stagnation and water logging, especially near settlements”.

But according to Thakur, at many parts along the Parwanoo-Solan four-lane, though culverts have been built, they have not been opened to allow water to pass through. The government official confirmed this, but did not comment on why the NHAI had not opened the culverts.

Elsewhere, culverts were improperly positioned, resulting in damage to houses.

One such house belonged to 60-year-old Nandlal. On the morning of July 9, after a full day of heavy rainfall, a huge boulder fell onto the four-lane below which his house is situated. Nandlal and his neighbours started noticing that the cracks in the road were intensifying, and called the officials of NHAI. “They kept telling us on the phone that they are coming, but no one showed up,” Nandlal said. In the meanwhile, the cracks deepened and a portion of the road caved in.

The morning after the boulder fell, Nandlal woke up at around 4 am to sounds of gushing water – rainwater flowing downhill had entered the cracks and been channelled into his home.

In early July, a boulder fell on the four-lane adjacent to which Nandlal’s house is situated. The next day, water gushed into his house through cracks in the road, destroying it. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Water also poured out of a culvert, which had been improperly positioned so that its opening was right in front of his house. The official explained why this had happened with several culverts along the highway. Four-laning was carried out by the state highway authority at first, he said, before being transferred to NHAI in 2015. The NHAI relied for its work on surveys conducted many years earlier – thus, it placed the drainage exits without taking into account whether houses had come up in certain areas in the interim, as in the case of Nandlal’s house. The official added that the detailed project report “should have incorporated a change in the water exits now that houses have been built in the area”. The official also noted that the four-lane construction was plagued at many places by a lack of proper planning for “nikasi”, or exit, of water.

Within two hours of the rainwater coming in, Nandlal and his family left their house. They watched as the roof collapsed, destroying their shop on the first floor, and their home on the floor below. “We have not even been able to take out our stuff from the house,” Nandlal said, as we walked carefully to the dilapidated structure, avoiding large cracks that had developed on the road.

Now, the family lives in rented accommodation.

“NHAI should have told us earlier when they were road widening, that our houses here might have some damages,” Nandlal said. “Then we could have considered moving.”

In fact, Nandlal had tried to anticipate the problem earlier. Two years ago, after he noticed cracks in his house due to the four-laning work, he filed a case against the NHAI, seeking compensation for damages. But no hearing has taken place since.

Shivom, who is also Nandlal’s neighbour, explained that the authority adopted an entirely unreasonable approach towards their problems. “About two-three months ago, NHAI officials had come to check the status of the houses and the damage, and they said there is no damage to be seen at all and left,” Shivom said. But, he explained, residents had naturally undertaken repairs in the interim. “You tell me, would we have kept the cracks as such all this time and lived in danger?” he said. “We spent lakhs of rupees to fix the damages.”

Shivom then showed me photos on his phone of the boulder that slipped down from the slope, which had been cut vertically to widen the four-lane road. “When the construction was on, they made a retaining wall, but those were just wire mesh with stones inside,” Shivom said. “In just one rain, those walls collapsed. They made those walls at least three times because of repeated damages.”

Shivom, a resident of Sujji, noted that the NHAI denied damaged houses compensation, without recognising that residents were forced to carry out repairs owing to delays in inspections. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The official who works closely on four-lane construction projects confirmed that they were aware of the incident at Sujji, and that in a recent meeting they had passed on the information to NHAI and requested it to inspect the spot and evaluate the situation. “The evaluation is yet to happen,” he said.

Deputy mayor Panwar believes that NHAI should be tried for criminal neglect for the damages that the four-laning has caused along the route from Parwanoo to Shimla. “Massive losses have taken place to people, their livelihoods, as well as public assets,” Panwar said. In July, Panwar filed an FIR against the NHAI and a private company working on the four-laning between Parwanoo and Solan, GR Infra, for violating norms while building the road.

Panwar argued that a separate fund should be set up to compensate locals for losses people suffer as a result of four-laning work – apart from money paid when their land is acquired. “Maybe 10% of the budget of such a project in the Himalayas should be put in a fund that can take care of some of these losses to the people,” he said. “It should be ingrained in the design of the project.”

Another factor that has contributed to the risk of landslides has been improper disposal of road-construction debris. Such debris can itself be washed away during rainfall and cause damage to homes and other structures.

In fact, the CAG report also found that not all muck was being dumped on approved dumping sites. It noted that 20 dumping sites had been identified at five locations for the Parwanoo-Solan stretch, but that only three of these 20 sites had been approved as of June 2016. While approval for the other sites remained pending, the report noted, muck generated in the project “was being disposed off in unscientific manner at unapproved sites causing damage to the ecology”.

On the way to Solan, we came across four sites of muck disposal. One of these, close to Parwanoo, had been converted into a park by NHAI, complete with grass, benches, and an “I love Himachal” sign. But many others were left as they were, with loose mud and boulders piled up along the newly constructed road. Apart from the construction debris, fallen material from landslides is also dumped in these sites.

A park on a muck-disposal site near Parwanoo. Elsewhere, a 2017 CAG report noted, muck was “disposed off in unscientific manner at unapproved sites causing damage to the ecology”. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

“When the debris was first disposed here a few years ago, it fell into the stream below and blocked it,” said Harmender Singh, a farmer from the village of Shamlech, as we stood on one of the dumping sites in the village. This, he explained, affected the fields below, which were dependent on the stream for irrigation. “So, we all contributed money ourselves and got this cleared through JCBs,” Harmender said. He noted that he and his neighbours pooled in between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 to have the stream cleared.

It wasn’t only the stream that was affected by the disposal of debris: Harmender’s fields were also damaged when a retaining wall of boulders held up by wire mesh that the NHAI had constructed fell on his fields sometime in 2020, after which its debris was never cleared.

Since then, Harmender has not been able to cultivate four bighas of land where the wall collapsed. “Perhaps the four-lane is useful to some people, but to us, it mostly caused losses,” Harmender said.

According to the official, the collapse of the wall could have been avoided. He explained that when NHAI and district officials visited the area to investigate the collapse, they realised that the wall had been sited improperly. Water from rain and other water sources tended to accumulate on the land on which the wall was built, and thus the land was prone to subsidence, he noted. “A retaining wall cannot be built here without it collapsing due to the geology of the place,” the official said. He added that when the authority rebuilt the retaining wall, they positioned it a few metres above the old one, to avoid areas of water accumulation.

In 2020, a retaining wall of boulders held up by wire mesh built by the NHAI fell on Harmender Singh’s fields. Since then, he has been unable to cultivate four bighas of land that he owns. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Residents of Anji, too, complained about poor work carried out in building walls. Where the road collapsed last year, a retaining wall, comprising a wired mesh filled with boulders, has been placed by the NHAI to prevent any other such landslides. “NHAI built this here only about two months ago, that too after we constantly asked them to do it,” Kavita added.

Looking at the mesh retaining wall, Thakur, the advocate, said, “Ye pakka kaam nahi hai,” this is not permanent work. Instead, a bricked retaining wall would have been more durable, he noted. “Had the retaining wall been made before the accident, the slope would have remained stable and not given away,” he added.

Thakur added that similarly poor work was seen on the highway itself – just days before the accident, he said, the portion of the elevated four-lane that passes Anji was shut for operations after deep cracks were observed on it. After some repairs, the portion was reopened. It collapsed the same day. “It’s a situation of haste is waste,” Thakur added.

The official added that partly as a result of such damages and the poorly planned responses to them, the cost of the four-lane project had ballooned since its initiation. While the Parwanoo-Solan stretch has seen an increase of 65% and a delay of 57 months from its original plan, for the second stretch up till Kaithlaghat, about 20 kilometres short of Shimla, the delay has been even more expensive – from its original estimation of about Rs 479 crore, by 2022, delays increased costs by 137% to around Rs 1,135 crore.

In Sujji, Shivom’s mother and her neighbours have watched NHAI invest year after year in the road, even after it was completed, to repair and prevent damages.

“The damage to the roads the government will still work on and finish, but what about our homes?” she said. “Who will be accountable for that?”

Just as we finished our conversation, a convoy of cars entered the four-lane in front of Shivom’s house. Vinod Kumar Sultanpuri, the member of legislative assembly from Kasauli, where Sujji falls, arrived at the spot with his team to assess the damages. “I had already raised this problem of lack of exit for water in the vidhan sabha,” he told the small gathering of people, after they had shared their concerns. He promised to look into the matter and left.

I walked back to where Kaku, my taxi driver for the day, was waiting. He had watched the commotion of the convoy arriving and leaving. Making a joke at my expense, he said, with a laugh, “Now you will write, ‘MLA sir came, gave hollow hopes to people and went!’” His smile slowly waned and he shook his head dismissively – he was only half-joking.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.