8 July 2022
Shifting the blame for the deadly landslide at Tupul in India
Recovery operations continue at the site of the 30 June 2022 landslide at Tupul in Northern India. The latest news is that 49 bodies have been recovered, whilst a further 12 people remain missing. The likelihood of recovering their remains is probably diminishing with time. In total, 29 of the victims were soldiers billeted on the landslide site, who were reportedly providing security to the project.
Inevitably, attempts are now being made to shift the blame for the disaster. The New Indian Express provides two perspectives. First, they report the words of an anonymous senior geologist from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation:-
“We have loose soil here. The rocks are hard only in the deeper portions. So when it rains incessantly or heavily, chances are that the soil will erode,” the geologist, who has worked in the region, said requesting anonymity…”To avoid such incidents where development projects are coming up, we must ensure maximum plantations. Only the plants with roots that can reach the sub-surface should be planted in consultations with experts,” he said, adding that in Uttarakhand, which has hard rocks, the retaining walls should have steel nets to keep the earth stable.
Vegetation is of course important in landslide management, and it brings many other benefits. But there is no evidence that vegetation, or lack thereof, was the cause of the landslide at Tupul. Indeed, the deep-seated nature of the failure indicates that vegetation was probably essentially irrelevant. The clear evidence of slope cutting is likely to have been far more significant, although as I noted previously this needs to be investigated properly.
Secondly, the article quotes one or more railway officials in relation to the landslide:-
“When a hill is cut for a project, the angle and the slope need to be maintained. It was adhered to,” he said … A railway official blamed jhum cultivation for the recent incident.
“Rainwater had got accumulated at the site, rendering the soil soft. That place is not a natural basin,” he said.
Jhum cultivation is a shifting form of agriculture in which the forest is cut down and burnt, and the land is then farmed for a small number of years before being abandoned. In the traditional form the land is allowed to recover, but a shift to more intensive land use means that the time period between cycles has often been reduced. The consequences can be extremely environmentally destructive.
There is little doubt that jhum cultivation can be have adverse outcomes for the land, and there may be some evidence that it has been practised in the Tupul area. However, I will leave it to readers to consider whether this is the probable cause of a deep-seated landslide at this site:-
If losses from these types of landslides are to be reduced then there is a need for an honest conversation about the likely causes.