Can mountains of Himachal Pradesh bear weight of heliports and helicopters?

To protect the state from natural disasters, the government should seek the opinion of environmental experts, geologists and local people before undertaking any development project

By Gurinder Kaur
Published: Monday 11 September 2023
Representative photo: iStock

The tourism and hospitality department of Himachal Pradesh has suffered huge losses due to continuous heavy rains in the last two months, the state’s Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu revealed during a state-level meeting.

The state is planning to construct 16 heliports in all the district headquarters of the state, including remote and tribal areas, to compensate for these losses. With the construction of these heliports, the state government eyes on meeting an annual target of 50 million tourist footfall.

The announcement comes at a time when the people of Himachal Pradesh are reeling under the impact of the so-called economic development inflicted by four-lane roads, hydropower projects and tourism.

Also read: Another disaster in Himachal Pradesh: What is the reason?

The heliports will be constructed in two phases: Nine in the initial phase, including Jaskot in Hamirpur district, Rakkar and Palampur in Kangra district, Sultanpur in Chamba district, Manali in Kullu district, Jispa and Sissu in Lahaul-Spiti district and Rangrik and Sharbo in Kinnaur district. 

The remaining seven heliports will be set up in the next phase, one in each district. More than one heliport will be constructed in tribal areas due to higher tourism potential. During the meeting, the chief minister said the construction would create more employment opportunities for the youth of the state.

The Himachal Pradesh government has approved the construction of heliports in eight districts this year and the deputy commissioners have already identified the land for heliports.

Development activities are very important for the growth of any state. Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are rich in natural resources. The cool, clean air, springs, waterfalls, rivers, tall trees and high hills attract many from adjacent states; these spots provide respite to throngs of tourists during summer.

Over the last decade, the Himachal Pradesh government has laid a network of roads to get the maximum benefit from a burgeoning tourism sector. Shimla, Kullu-Manali, Dharamshala and many other cities have been connected by four-lane roads, which has led to a surge in tourist arrivals in these cities.

Multi-storied buildings, hotels, restaurants and car parking have been unsystematically built here to cater to their needs — ignoring the environmental regulations. And many of the region’s buildings succumbed to natural disasters.

The destroyed Shiva temple in Shimla was built in the catchment area of ​​a rain drain. The Krishna Nagar building in Shimla was also built on the Bawadi (step well)The eight multi-storied buildings that collapsed in Kullu were also built on the steep slope of the mountain. A slope of beyond 25 degrees is considered dangerous for buildings constructed on hill slopes.

A six-kilometre stretch of four-lane road from Kullu to Manali has been done on the bed of the Beas River by erecting walls on the flood plains and filling them up. This road was also washed away. 

As many as 21 tunnels have been constructed to build the Manali-Kiratpur four-lane road. These tunnels are made by blasting mountains with explosives or under-cutting mountains. Blasting of mountains with explosives disrupts their balance and it leads to landslides while they try to regain balance by sliding downward. 

Moreover, the construction companies have neglected environmental regulations while creating four-lane roads. The Shimla-Parwanoo four-lane road from Parwanoo to Dharampur has been cut directly (at a 90-degree angle) at many places.

Landslides have completely destroyed a section of this four-lane road from Parwanoo to Dharampur after the rains in the months of July and August. Nowadays, only the old two-lane road is operational in this area.

The people of Himachal Pradesh have not yet recovered from the so-called economic development in the form of four-lane roads, hydropower projects and tourism. The four-lane roads built for easy access of tourists in the hilly areas have caused much damage to the state.

The recent announcement raises some questions: When the construction of four-lane roads has caused so much damage to Himachal Pradesh, can these mountains bear the weight of heliports and helicopters? More mountains and trees will be cut to build the heliports, further deteriorating the balance of the mountains and fuelling landslides. Where will the buildings be built to accommodate the 50 million tourists? 

There are 17,120 landslide-prone areas in the state, according to a report by the Geological Survey of India. And 2003 data from the Government of India suggested that 97.42 per cent of Himachal Pradesh’s areas are prone to landslides. Will such areas withstand shocks during helicopter flights?

The mountains in which Himachal Pradesh is situated are young and continuously rising. They are very fragile and this hilly region falls in earthquake-sensitive zones. 

Construction in such sensitive areas is first discussed with the environment committee of that area, and an environmental impact assessment is conducted. After this, detailed information is given through print and electronic media to get the opinion of the people of that area. If they agree, the project is started. The project will be improved and the whole process will be repeated in case of disagreement.

Helicopters emit more pollutants into the environment than that of road transportation. The greenhouse gases released by helicopters pollute the environment and increase the temperature. According to a 2020 report by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, India’s average temperature increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius from 1901 to 2018.

The temperature of the Hindu Kush Himalayas increased by 1.3°C from 1951-2014. Several areas of the Hindu Kush Himalayas have experienced a declining trend in snowfall and retreat of glaciers in recent decades. Only time will tell how much the temperature will rise with the construction of 16 heliports and the arrival of 50 million tourists annually.

According to the Fifth and Sixth Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, India will be more affected by climate change due to temperature rise than many other countries. India has snow-laden mountains to the north and ocean on three sides to the south. The rising temperature will lead to rapid ice melting and natural calamities such as flash floods, cloud bursts, and oceanic disasters in southern regions.

To protect the state from natural disasters, the government should seek the opinion of environmental experts, geologists and local people before undertaking any development project.

Hilly areas cannot bear the weight of any infrastructure and population beyond their capacity. Therefore, instead of increasing the number of tourists, the state government should determine the number of tourists according to the bearing capacity of the cities.

Instead of constructing heliports and four-lane roads, the old two-lane roads should be properly repaired and made passable. The government should provide convenient means of public transport instead of private vehicles and helicopters.

There will be no need to build multi-storied buildings and more spaces for parking if the number of private vehicles and tourists is limited. By doing this, Himachal Pradesh can be preserved and remain a centre of tourist attraction for a long time.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

The author is a former professor of the Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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