Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari recently announced on Twitter that the ball to construct a 2.74 km tunnel—with the unimaginative name of Mussoorie Bypass—is now rolling. The tunnel will link Cart Mackenzie Road to the popular picnic spot Kempty Falls on the outskirts of Mussoorie. The tunnel will bypass the Gandhi Chowk junction, at which vicious traffic snarls cause long delays.
Ganesh Saili, a Mussoorie-born author, says the Queen of Hill Stations has grown from a population of 5,000 to bulge at its seams with 50,000 residents over a relatively short time. He believes the new tunnel could ease traffic on roads leading to Mussoorie, but there must be due diligence to avoid harming the environment. “You have to live here to know what traffic jams are like,” says Saili. “Last year, there were nine-kilometres traffic jams on the 22-km stretch to Mussoorie. The tunnel will get rid of the bus loads of people who come with packed lunches, go straight to Kempty Falls and return, leaving a trail of garbage and plastic and contributing not one paisa to the city’s economy. They just want to return to their families and say ‘we have seen Mussoorie’,” says Saili.
Saili does not think it is possible to ignore the impact of traffic snarls in Mussoorie any longer—only a few privileged people are relatively unaffected by the miles-long queues that block its roads. This does not mean environmental concerns should be ignored. “We cannot live in ivory towers any longer, but we also need to balance the concerns of the population, with prudence and progress,” he says.
Mussoorie-based travel writer Hugh Gantzer differs from Saili. He feels it is “completely unscientific” to bore a tunnel through the limestone that forms the foundations of Mussoorie. The city is built on highly fractured Krol limestone which is extremely porous. “It is also on a highly active seismic zone,” he says.
Mussoorie is on the suture that exists between the Indian and Eurasian plate, which is the reason why the Himalayas are being pushed up. “We are used to tremors because these mountains are rising and not very stable,” says Gantzer. He also expresses surprise that neither the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology nor the Geological Survey of India—both based in Dehradun—was consulted for this tunnel project.
Dr Vikram Gupta, a senior scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, confirms that the MRT has not consulted with his institute. The other concern of environmentalists is that the constant flow of traffic can cause tremors and that landslides will destroy properties and disturb the ecology. Gupta says landslides in the Himalayas can be predicted and controlled, but only if those executing a project follow the correct procedures. “Sadly, in my experience, contractors executing projects keep on cutting and cutting hill slopes without following stabilization norms necessary to keep the slopes intact,” he says.
As a first step, the government needs to undertake a proper scientific study of the impact of a tunnel. “If we can have underwater tunnels, tunnels below sea beds, then it is possible to do so here too, but it cannot be executed in an ad hoc manner,” Gupta maintains.
Dr SK Bartarya, a retired geologist, says the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the area must focus on water sources in the region because increasing construction has already dried up the existing streams. “The full implications of this tunnel will be understood only after the DPR has been prepared,” he says.
Bartarya says, “We need to know just how many nallahs and springs are in the area. Water can be present in the fractures of rock that a tunnel is passing through. If this rock breaks where the tunnel is to be dug, what will happen to these springs? Much of the population depends on spring water, so construction has serious implications for Mussoorie which faces acute water deficits in summer months.”
He, however, reminds that a 17-kilometre road was constructed at the Rohtang Pass, which has proved to be tremendously convenient to locals. “The technology is available, but if not properly implemented, it reflects poorly on those supervising these projects,” he says.
That said, environmentalists are up in arms against this project. Mallika Bhanot, who heads the NGO Ganga Avahan, believes a slew of infrastructural projects are being pushed through in Garhwal—from power projects to new ghats and the Char Dham road—because the prime minister is especially interested in this region.
“This region is seen as a spiritual hub of Hinduism, so the government is gung-ho about promoting spiritual tourism. But it is being done without keeping the aastha (faith) of the people in mind. A laser show at the Kedarnath temple is the government’s idea of promoting tourism. Nothing is sacrosanct for them: It believes that busloads of people pouring in and rushing out defines spiritual tourism,” says Bhanot.
Her other apprehension is that the excessive tunnelling in the Garhwal Himalayas is drying up the springs. “Railway Minister Piyush Goyal green-signalled a series of tunnels to improve rail connectivity in the Chardham area. But the food security of India is dependent on these mountains. If water sources dry up here, we will be in serious trouble,” Bhanot says.
The construction of the Mussoorie tunnel has indirect implications too. October onwards, there have been non-stop forest fires in the region. Bhanot says they were lit deliberately lit to the benefit of the timber mafia. “The result is soil has lost its moisture. The black carbon deposits on glaciers have increased manifold. There is increasing glacial melt, which will result in more disasters,” she says. The region has been through 14 major disasters in the last few years.
Dr Vikram Soni, a physicist at JNU, says limestone is soft and porous, and there is also an abundance of shale deposits in some areas, which is also not hard. “The government needs to focus on developing alternative hill stations rather than just on one or two,” he says.
The last word in this debate must go to the forest department, for it is directly responsible for protecting the forests and mountains of Uttarakhand. Kahkashan Naseem, District Forest Officer, Mussoorie, says the government did not consult with the Forest Department on this project. “We have no idea about the alignment of this tunnel. We are not in the loop at all. The tunnel excavation will be under privately-owned properties, in which case the government will have to take prior consent from owners,” she says.
Her understanding is that the government will need an Environment Impact Assessment report and clearance from the forest department. However, since the ministry has released funds for the project, people wonder how the government took decisions without consultation.
“I believe that if digging takes place below 20 metres, the forest cover will not be affected. There used to be a great deal of limestone quarrying here, but former prime minister Indira Gandhi put an end to it in 1983,” Naseem says.
The tunnel, for now, is hanging in the air. However, given how important infrastructure projects are to the present regime, chances are that work on the tunnel will start very soon.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.