On July 11, 14 people were buried alive in Arunachal Pradesh’s Papum Pare district. A massive landslide, triggered by incessant rains, flattened at least five houses in a village called Lapatap. The extent of the damage can by gauged by the fact that it took a team of disaster management relief force personnel and policemen, assisted by locals, almost 24 hours to find all the bodies buried under the debris.

Torrential rains are not new to Arunachal Pradesh, and the eastern Himalayan region has always been prone to landslides. However, the damage caused by them has steadily increased in the last few years, with settlements starting to mushroom in risk-prone areas. Apart from unplanned urban expansion in and around the capital city of Itanagar, including Papum Pare, mega development projects in the state have exacerbated pressures, say experts.

Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu visiting the site of the disaster. Image courtesy: June Taki
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu visiting the site of the disaster. Image courtesy: June Taki

The highway rush

Arunachal Pradesh is currently in the middle of a hectic highway construction wave. The most significant among all these projects is the Trans-Arunachal Highway – a two-lane highway project connecting Tawang, a strategically high-important town on the India-China border in north-western Arunachal Pradesh to Kanubari in the south-eastern tip of the state, before finally culminating in Assam’s Dhemaji district. The highway, which will connect 12 out of a total of 16 district headquarter towns of the state. This, along with the soon-to-be-completed Bogibeel bridge in Assam, is expected to boost Arunachal Pradesh’s connectivity with the rest of country, and help India counter China’s aggressive highway building exercise on the other side of the border along Arunachal Pradesh.

Additionally, India pans to buid an ambitious 1,800-km Frontier Highway in the state that will run parallel to the India-China border.

“The strategic dimension of building roads in Arunachal Pradesh and of playing catch up with China, which dawned upon the Indian security community only after the turn of the decade, necessitated the fast building of roads,” explained Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a senior research fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. “Because of the rush in going through with large infrastructure projects, environmental assessments and the feasibility studies were not done properly. Systematic planning and selection of alignments was not done, all the four seasons’ data has not been collected for feasibility studies of projects, and most environmental impact assessments have been token.”

Faulty road alignments?

Tage Rupa, a geomorphologist at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, said that while “landslides occur naturally or are mostly triggered off by anthropogenic activities, the developmental activities that have come to the region, especially in the form of Trans- Arunachal Highway have increased the frequency and intensity of landslides”.

Rupa claimed that the road alignment in many places has not been backed up by proper land surveys. She pointed out the example of a 10-kilometre stretch of highway between Papu and Midpu in Papum Pare district, a patch replete with active fault lines. “The area has seen approximately 29 large to medium scale landslide activities in the recent past,” she said. “I agree that the progress of the region comes with the development projects. But before the project come into action proper investigation or survey has to be carried out which should not be only done by the engineers but also by the geologists, environmentalists and geomorphologists together.”

Rahman concurred, saying that road alignments have often been based on “easiest possible accessibility point, rather than it being stable.” “New road alignments have been cut through virgin forests in the middle stretches of Arunachal Pradesh, and most of these alignments have proved to be unstable,” he claimed.

‘Fast-tracking’

The construction of the Trans-Arunachal highway began in 2008. However, progress till 2013 was slow, with only 100 of the proposed 2,400 kilometres being constructed. The slow pace of progress has plagued almost all highway projects in the Northeast. Keen to make up for lost time, the Congress government at the Centre announced a new scheme called the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme in North East in 2013. The Trans-Arunachal highway is one of the flagship projects under the scheme. However, many argue that that fast-tracking has only led to by-passing of environmental norms.

“The fast tracked became mindless environmentally unguarded fast-tracked,” said Rahman, adding that such an approach was driven by a mind-set that environmental impact assessment for projects in the North East should be done away with if we need to develop the region. “This is a mind-set problem which has percolated down now to the grassroots section of contractors.”

The relief team looking for bodies under the debris. Image courtesy: June Taki
The relief team looking for bodies under the debris. Image courtesy: June Taki

‘The rich have erected massive buildings’

People in Arunachal Pradesh, however, recognise that infrastructure development projects are not the only problem. Ranju Dodam, an Itanagar-based journalist, said reckless construction activities in urban centres had contributed to the problem. “The rich have erected massive buildings that blatantly breach building laws in relation to the number of stories actually permitted,” claimed Dodam. “These buildings also require levelling entire hilltops, most often in places that are continuously increasing in population as a result of natural growth and migration from villages.”

Jarjum Ete of the All India Union of Forest Working People said the landslides and mudslides have increased in the state because of a “sense of disregard for the environment”. “There is a wilful ignorance on part of state agencies which are supposed to monitor things, as our mountains and hills are being bulldozed,” said Ete, a community leader based in Itanagar and affiliated to the Congress.