As the heartbreaking task of locating loved ones buried under several feet of slush continues in Pune's Malin village where a landslide claimed at least 25 lives on Wednesday, the cause for the calamity has been stated as the torrential rains over the course of two days. From government officials to senior politicians and even National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel, everybody asked to state their opinions on what may have caused the landslip has pointed to the rains.
But torrential rains are not new to the Sahyadris, and landslides are not annual occurrences in Pune district. Could it have been human intervention of some kind that led to a landslide of such magnitude? So far, at least 25 people have been killed and about 40 homes out of the 44 homes that comprise Malin village, 100 km from Pune in the Ambegaon taluka, remain buried.
Amid reports that there was massive deforestation in the region, it now appears that at the root of the allegations is a government scheme to level off land on hill slopes to create cultivable plots.
According to Nisarga Sahas Sanstha, a non governmental organisation working on environmental issues in the region, the state government launched a scheme called ‘Padkai’ for tribals on a pilot basis in the Ambegaon Tehsil about three years ago. The Padkai scheme is similar to the MNREGA scheme. Through this scheme, there is employment generation for tribals, with assets created in the form of their own plots of land for cultivation.
“However, many flaws have been reported in the survey carried out to implement the scheme. Agriculture department officials have done the survey carelessly and they are the ones responsible for the incident. Officials have chosen around 25 plots that are located behind the houses of the tribal people. But the slope of the hill here is extreme. And in the process of levelling the land for cultivation, many trees have been uprooted. This has loosened the soil," said Dhananjay KOkane, president of Nisarg Sahas Sanstha, speaking to Firstpost.
Also, the plots thus created were given stone bunds along the periphery, to prevent outflow of collected rain water. "Anybody can tell that these stones and the loosened soil can come down on the houses at any time given that the area falls under the heavy rainfall category,” said Kokane.
That human intervention may have been at the root of the calamity is unnerving, said environmentalists, for it displayed a complete absence of any lessons learnt from the Uttarakhand tragedy last year when activists and locals pointed to poorly planned hydel operations, a rash of dams and uncontrolled construction by the tourism and hospitality industry along the hillslopes.
He added that the incident is no surprise for the people living in the vicinity. “It is no surprise for us. It is unfortunate that the leveling of these 25 plots was done earlier this year in Malin village,” he added, stating that action should be taken against Agriculture department officials for a faulty survey on the suitability of the selected plots of land for the Padkai scheme.
Locals and other experts pointed out that the area is not actually prone to landslides. “But cracks to the hillsides and houses have been reported earlier. The government must carry out an extensive survey of the region and relocate the people if it shows landslide-prone signs,” said a local resident, speaking to Firstpost.
Others who visited the site of the devastation were shocked at the extent of bald land on the hillslopes. NDRF officials who were at the site also told Firstpost that the difficult terrain made rescue efforts complicated. It was clear by Thursday afternoon that up to 150 people could be buried under the wet soil that was being excavated from the site with heavy earth-moving machinery. The soil was being removed slowly, to make sure possible survivors were not hurt.
Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil, the local elected representative, said that the district administration should have taken precautionary measures. “Such an unfortunate incident has never happened in the area earlier. It has been heavily raining in the region since the past one week. The district administration should have visited the place and should have taken precautionary measures,” Patil said.
Updated Date: Aug 01, 2014 10:04 AM