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WB: Environmentalists Warn Mamata Banerjee of a Joshimath-like Crisis in Darjeeling

Darjeeling has witnessed a lot of multi-storied constructions over the past few decades. It is alleged that real estate developments are often violating rules.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Image Courtesy: PTI

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Image Courtesy: PTI

Kolkata: Experts and environmentalists fear Darjeeling, the hill town of West Bengal created by the British, is facing a Joshimath-like crisis. They warn that the situation could worsen if corrective measures are not adopted and have approached Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for the same.

Uttarakhand's Joshimath experienced landslides, leading to cracks in houses and roads. Experts hold illegal construction responsible for this. Similar concerns have been raised for the hills of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong in North Bengal.

Darjeeling has witnessed a lot of multi-storied constructions over the past few decades. It is alleged that real estate developments are often violating rules. According to the West Bengal Municipal Act, non-real estate construction should not exceed 11.5 metres. However, the restriction seems to have remained in pen and paper, which is evident from recent statistics. Recently, Darjeeling Municipality identified as many as 139 illegal constructions in Darjeeling town alone, where the height restriction of 11.5 metres has been violated. Besides, there is excessive use of plastic.

Pradipta Mitra, a prominent civil engineer in Kolkata, said, "The higher the building, the more is the pressure on the soil on which it is constructed. The soil texture of the hills is very loose. It is more vulnerable to natural calamities like earthquakes or rains, which loosen the soil structure further."

He further said, "Before any construction on the hill, it is necessary to make what the load of the construction may be and whether it is safe as per the structure of the soil. But, It is unfortunate that often these height restrictions are violated because of the builder-

Mitra also pointed out another cause of landslides in hilly areas. According to him, people are shifting away from wooden constructions to concrete constructions, increasing the pressure on the soil.

"Wooden construction is ideal for hills because a load of this type of construction is much less than that of concrete structures. But, real estate developments like shopping malls and hotels are mainly concrete-based. This issue needs to be addressed.'

Recently, a Geological Survey of India (GSI) report claimed that around 17% of Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling regions are prone to heavy landslides. While 40% of the areas are prone to moderate landslides, 43% are prone to mild landslides.

Tindharia, Giddapahar, Gayabari, Pagla Jhora, and Daragaon have been identified as heavy landslide-prone areas. Incidentally, all these places have seen an increase in tourists in the last few years. This brings the pressure of increased real estate development and the movement of heavy vehicles.

An environmental organisation, Paribesh Academy (Environment Academy), has approached CM Banerjee seeking necessary action. The organisation's request is to demolish all these illegal constructions as soon as possible and monitoring be done to ensure that no more illegal constructions are made.

Biswajit Mukhopadhyay, the president of the Paribesh Academy and former chief legal officer of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, said, "In June 2013, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Nepal were hit by a terrible natural disaster. Many people died in Kedarnath too. If we had learned then, the Joshimath incident would not have happened. That is why advance precautions must be taken in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Karshiang."

Many others Environmental organisations of North Bengal have also raised their voice with Paribesh Academy. Animesh Bose, the coordinator of the organisation Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, said, "Not only multi-storied constructions, but houses have been built by closing the mouths of mountain streams. Fissures are being created in the hilly villages on both sides of the Teesta to generate hydropower. Darjeeling will also be destroyed like Joshimath."

Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Karshiang - these three hill towns are now under Gorkhaland Territorial Council (GTA). It is learned that various restrictions have already been imposed on multi-stored construction in Kalimpong and Karshiang.

GTA chief Aneet Thapa said, "Construction is now being allowed in Kalimpong, Mirik and Karshiang under the Bengal Municipalities Act. The same policy will be implemented in Darjeeling."

Recently there has been a reshuffle of power in Darjeeling Municipality. Earlier the ruling Hamro Party created a board to start demolishing the illegal constructions. However, after political unrest erupted in the hills after six elected councillors from the Hamro Party joined the opposition Anit Thapa-led Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantric Morcha (BGPM), the process stalled.

According to Ajay Edwards, his party had to pay the price of taking action against such illegal constructions.

"Some of our councillors were allured by the opposition funded by the illegal builders; the entire process of action against the illegal constructions stopped. The pressure of buildings of height beyond the prescribed limit is increasing on the hills. The state government will have to look into the matter. Otherwise, the entire region might face a Joshimath-like crisis" Edwards said.

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