The tragedy at Marangching led many to speculate that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the Jiri-Imphal railway project was perhaps not done in a very systematic manner but rather in a perfunctory manner, resulting in the tragic incident. In fact due to the geo-physical condition of the state, any disturbance in the soil can lead to land or mudslide in any part of the hills of Manipur. There will be a mechanism to mitigate such slides but proper design has to be prepared which may be costly.
There is no road in the hills of Manipur which is not visited by landslides. Landslides are common occurrences and even while cutting the hill slopes, there have been tragic incidents earlier, resulting in the naming of places as Taralok, Taretlok, Amalok etc where 10, seven or one respectively have died in these gorges. The IT road from Kangpoki to Tamenglong via Tamei is replete with such places.
Such incidents happened in the sixties and with improved technologies the incidents have become rarer, till the Marangching major tragedy. Yes, from time to time people or vehicles have been swept by land or mudslides leading to loss of life and the slides were cleared and the stretch of road functioned as usual. NH 2 and 37 has annual slide visitations and nothing much has been done about it, except to clear the slide and life continues as usual.
It is not that in places amelioration efforts have not been carried out but in many cases it was found insufficient. One example is at the site of the water supply project at Chingkheiching near Yaralpat along the Tinsid road. The hill slopes are covered by excavated earth which, after a rain, slid down to the road and beyond and the road was not usable for some time till the muck was cleared. The earth fills up the drain that runs along the road by the hill slope leading to water running on the road, thereby causing breakage of the black top surface.
One fails to understand why using heavy machinery, the drains are not cleaned regularly so at least the roads are not flooded. To stop the excavated earth from sliding down to the road, in certain portions, retaining walls have been erected but this time due to rain and the breakage of a water pipe a portion of the retaining wall crumbled while another stretch of the wall is shifted upward. The reason is faulty design with no proper foundation and there are hardly any weep-holes to allow water to seep through.
The state has competent engineers and why can’t their expertise be utilised to design a retaining wall of sufficient strength to withstand the pressure. Even if it is a bit more costly to erect a properly designed retaining wall, in the long run it will be cheaper as constructing poorly designed ones again and again will be much more costly.
The tendency to give the entire responsibility to the contractor is unfortunate and only increases the risk and the cost, as he attempts to reduce cost. The engineers must be made to design and even on turnkey projects, the details need to be properly scrutinised from the technical point of view before approval. Engineers must have the final say on technical matters and no politician or bureaucrat should have the authority to overrule their observations.
No politicians or bureaucrats will have the guts or even the desire to advise surgeons on the methods to be used in a surgery! That should be in the case of civil constructions, and a minister just because he was a former contractor does not mean he knows all the technical requirements.
In a place like Manipur which is located in the Seismic Zone 5, there seems an imperative need to also use Predictive and Simulation methods, while conducting EIA.
There are many methods of EIA such as Adhoc, Checklist, Matrix, Network, Overlay, Factor Analysis of Environmental index, Cost:benefit analysis, and Predictive or Simulation.
In the team for conducting the EIA, there is a need to include as a member each who had done Environmental Engineering and Geology.
For all projects Simulation method may not be required and one can adopt either one of the three most popular methods, that is Checklist, Matrix or Network methods but in major projects in geologically sensitive areas, it must be made mandatory. One is not sure what method was used to conduct EIA in Manipur.
The tendency to try to by-pass locals while executing major projects is unwarranted. In public consultation, the demand is more on shifting the project elsewhere and when the site is finalised people run from pillar to post for a higher rate of compensation.
The locals, because they have stayed for a long time, know the behaviour of the soil and other variables and they should point out their concern, at least in layman’s terms if not in technical terms.
The draft EIA must be placed in the public domain so that public who are well versed in such areas can give their comment. In fact all Detailed Project Reports (DPR) of major projects need to be placed in the public domain so that the public can give their comments.
The tendency to say that the DPR is with the Project Director and anyone can visit and go through it, is a polite way of making it opaque.
DPRs are thick volumes and it will be extremely uncomfortable for anyone to go through it in someone’s office and the host officer will also feel uncomfortable. Such DPR and EIA must be uploaded in the concerned Department’s website so that it can be studied in leisure and comments offered.
One major Project which is of concern to environmentalists is the Eco-Tourism project at Loktak Lake. The concerned department claims that it will have no impact on the lake as it does not touch the lake. This may be possible but the health of the Loktak is not only inside the lake but the surroundings have tremendous effect on the lake. Siltation is from the surrounding areas including the upper reaches of the Nambul River.
Thus, a comprehensive understanding of a project is necessary and all concerns must be discussed threadbare before the actual execution of a project. Now people are demanding dismantling of the Ithai Barrage and the call includes a former Governor. Due to the Barrage, the hydrology of the Manipur valley has changed dramatically and it will be impossible to bring back to the pre-barrage condition.
Despite the barrage, the rivers have become dry in the lean season which never happened up to the first decade of the 21st century and the question is will there be sufficient water in the hills and valley during the lean season if the barrage is dismantled?
A systematic and scientific study needs to be carried out by competent experts, before a decision is taken on the proposal. The Loktak Hydroelectric project was undertaken with lots of hope to make power available which is now belied.
The only positive of the project is that massive encroachment was stopped and if the barrage was not constructed, Loktak by now could have been a small lake surrounded by farmlands mostly owned by rich people from Imphal and the local populace may have been eased out.
The DPR and the EIA, if it already has one, of the Eco-tourism Project at Loktak may be made available in the public domain in the department’s website so that environmentalists can go through and their concern discussed and debated.
Some of their concerns may be substantive while some may be minor. But reaching out to them and if there are major concerns is there ways to ameliorate the situation and if so the best ones can be worked out.
Connectivity and power supply are essential for development and options need to be explored but roads have to be made so the best alignment needs to be worked out while for power should it be from the grid or standalone can be determined. In other words, the need to follow the maxim “Look before you leap” is all the more necessary.
How much money has been spent on the various dams, Khuga, Thoubal, etc and how much is the area irrigated by such projects?
The department will claim that it has created this much potential but without proper irrigation creating potential is irrelevant and the only inference one can draw from such projects is that the object is not irrigation but construction per se.
Dolaithabi barrage was financially nonviable but because of political consideration it was executed but after pouring in huge amounts of scarce resources how much benefit has it provided? Now, expertise is available with the public which is not available within the government and it would be in the best interest of the state that all work together for the development of the state.
(The views expressed are personal)