Thursday, December 11, 2008

A letter from a Friend

I received this email today from Prof Leszek Starkel (above), of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Krakow, Poland - who was our Main Speaker and Resource person in the Landslide Hazard Workshop organized by STH in Southfield College, Darjeeling on the 21Nov2008.
STH is proud to be associated with the likes of Prof Starkel, who is one of the world's foremost scientists in Geomorphology.
Dear Mr Rao,

Ten days ago after coming back to Poland I returned to annual reports, editorial work etc and two events turned my mind again to last workshop in Darjeeling and to our Himalaya.On Monday I got your letter and at the Cracov University (one of the oldest in Central Europe), I attended the ceremony of awarding the Dalai Lama by the highest degree of Doctor Honoris Causa.
I like to thank you for invitation and excellent organisation of seminar on landslide. The initiative of Save the Hills is very important and should be extended. In my opinion most of presented papers should be published including also panel discussion. Parallel to that it would be useful to publish more popular book with many figures and photos showing causes and effects of extreme events, scale of damages and ways of protection. Such book should be delivered to all schools, tea
gardens etc.

I wish you and all members of Save the Hills
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year


Leszek Starkel


Comment by praful rao
My thanks again to all those who contributed their time and resources towards making the Landslide Hazard Workshop at Darjeeling "excellent".

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How to corrupt a noble system..

The RTI Act 2005 is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in our democracy because it empowers the ordinary citizen to question the Govt and the powers that be.
Unfortunately, even this Act which stipulates a time limit of 30 days for questions to be answered has been corrupted...
I had put an application under the RTI Act2005 on 19Aug2008 (SLIDE 1), asking for certain information regarding landslide prevention and fund utilization from the SPIO, Office of the District Magistrate, Darjeeling. Receiving no reply within the time frame assigned I sought the intervention of the West Bengal State Information commission - they did intervene sending this letter, dated 22 Oct2008 (SLIDE 2).
Since the district admin paid no heed to the State Information Commission, I have taken the matter up with Central Information Commission (Slide 3&4) on 05Dec2008... what ought to have taken one month has already taken the better part of three and a half months and I have still not received the answers to my questions!

praful rao

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The ATREE workshop at Darjeeling

Two days workshop held

By DT Correspondent on November 28,2008

image Darjeeling, Nov 26: A two day seminar held by ATREE ( Asoka Trust for Research and Ecology) brought a league of researchers, scientists, bio-conservationists and NGO workers under one roof to discuss a rather impending issue that seems to loom about the atmosphere. The conservation of bio-diversity and the sustainable usage of the forest was the sensitive issue being floored in the seminar. The group had representatives from South India ATREE Branch, representatives from the North East and Darjeeling Branch as well.

Detailed presentations were made on issues such as reconciling conservation with livelihood, monitoring the ecological conditions of the forest and drivers of ecosystem change, cultural ecology and link to conversation, livelihood strategies of forest dependent communities in Western Ghats, community ownership to sustain natural resource based enterprise, Conservation Education at ATREE on the first day by the team from South India.

On the second day the team from North East and Darjeeling made their presentations on the conservation of the flora and fauna in and around Darjeeling, how to encourage conservation of forest and also encourage people to tap into the resources of nature but in a sustainable way, so as to generate a source of income in these communities. Mr. Suman Rai ATREE Darjeeling talked about how to build working relations, networking and collaboration in such a way that it is beneficial to both parties involved through his personal experience.

Mr. Praful Rao made a rather startling presentation about landslides, which is a great danger to the hills. The presentation was really powerful as it showed real places we know and live in. DLR Prerna also presented it’s progress it is making in the communities it is working, in form of fair trade of tea, fruits. Management of the premium generated from the trade of these products. Also research it conducts to develop environmentally friendly agriculture practices. Mr. Amba Jamir from Nagaland gave an interesting presentation on shifting cultivation, also in a very positive light.

An environmentally charged seminar, where a lot of serious issues were discussed in a very interactive way. There was a constant dialog between the two teams who also sheared their personal experience, also suggesting solution for problems that seem to be persisting in an area though the way they have handled the problem. It was a forum where a lot of knowledge was exchanged from people who have had experience first hand in the field

Ava Rai, DT Correspondent, Darjeeling


Comment by praful rao

As I have repeatedly emphasized in all the presentations I have made - it is good to have these workshops and awareness camps but ultimately they must translate into action on the ground ie our drainage systems will have to be revamped, an aggressive afforestation program must start and so on...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Objectives of SaveTheHills

Objectives of STH

  1. To work towards prevention , mitigation and management of landslides hazards in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas.

  2. To develop and enhance public and govt awareness of the causes, effects of landslides through all means possible and thereby reduce disaster risk through hazard awareness.

  3. To conceive of and implement capacity building measures to the extent possible in order to make the community more resilient to landslide disasters.

  4. To monitor/report and visit landslide areas so as to create a database on landslides in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas (with the possible causes of landslides).

  5. To monitor rainfall through satellite based reports and other means so as to alert communities of the threat of possible landslides.

  6. To liaise with GSI and other scientific agencies during surveys so as to provide assistance and accurate local knowledge inputs.

  7. To network with other NGOs and govt agencies so as to increase knowledge about landslides and earthquakes.

  8. To participate in and organize workshops with a view to enhance disaster education about landslides and earthquakes.

  9. To participate in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction work to the extent possible after landslides/earthquakes.

    praful rao

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Landslides for dummies" by Dr Malay Mukul

We all know that the Himalaya has been formed by the collision of the Indian and the Eurasian plates and this process has been going on for the last 50 million years. The process of mountain building on our planet is accompanied by earthquakes and building of “topography” or relief resulting in formation of slopes. Once the slopes are built beyond a certain critical angle (that largely depends on how weak or strong the material or rocks/soils that make up the slope are) they strive to reach equilibrium by collapsing under the forces of gravity. This is essentially the landslide process that we encounter. Slopes can fail and slide at lower angles if the binding vegetation is removed or fluids get into the system. In an active mountain belt like the Himalaya, landslides are, therefore, an inherent product of mountain building where slopes are built to the point where they are no longer stable and then collapse to reach an equilibrium state. Landslides are, therefore, part of a natural process and we cannot stop or arrest this process no matter how hard we try. Our only option to avoid landslides completely is to move out of the hills and go to the plains. However, that is not a solution we seek at this juncture. So the next option we have is to try and understand the natural processes that lead to landslides so that we don’t facilitate them and develop an understanding of the risks involved in living on hill-slopes. To understand landslides an understanding of the geology of the region (preferably at the scale of our towns, villages etc.) should be the first order of business. While the detailed geology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya is still in the process of being worked out, first-order features are more-or-less understood. First, there is almost a cake-like layering of rocks in Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya; the rocks are mechanically stronger as you climb up to the top of the cake. For example, rocks in the Teesta valley are weaker near the river than rocks higher up on mountain tops like Ghoom, Darjiling or even Delo. The Teesta has simply cut through this layering like a knife. Also, the layers in this cake are separated by particularly “weak” zones termed as faults which are basically large fractures which can be seen exposed on the surface but run deep underground. In these zones, the rocks have been crushed and powdered by natural processes and consequently they typically end up forming thick soils over the years. You cannot blast your way to solid rocks in fault zones. Needless to say, these are also zones that will slide easily and are difficult to stabilize. A typical example of this is the Birrik slide zone on NH-31A which has been active for decades now. A landslide in a fault zone is something which you cannot do much and the best strategy is to get the hell-out-of-the-way. Such zones have to be carefully identified and mapped at a scale of the habitat being planned. For example, in the Kalimpong area we have weaker rocks in the southern part of town and stronger rocks in the northern part of town (e. g. at Delo). So the fault zone separating the two layers of rocks must pass somewhere in between. This zone needs to be clearly identified and mapped in detail because this zone might hold the key to landslides around the Kalimpong area. This study is lacking at present. I fear that this zone might be heavily urbanized. While we cannot really do much to correct the presence of this geological zone, we can at least be careful to secure and stabilize it and keep out of this zone to the extent possible. Similar studies need to be carried out in the towns of Kurseong and Darjeeling and urban centres of Sikkim.

The bottom line is that as long as we live in the Himalaya, landslides will be part of our lives. We need to accept this and plan for it to the extent possible. Identification of geologically weak zones as well us having mitigation strategies in place would be the way to go. We cannot be thinking that all is well and adopt an ostrich mentality. We are not only vulnerable to landslides but also to large earthquakes and the worst case scenario would be a double whammy of both these hazards hitting us together. Great earthquakes cause multiple landslides as was evident in Kashmir during the recent earthquake. Unfortunately, we have chosen to ignore traditional wisdom and take backward steps in rapidly urbanizing our hills with concrete multi-storied dwellings. There will be a price to pay when the next big earthquake coupled with seismically induced landslides strikes the hills of Darjeeling and Sikkim. We know that for a fact from the Kashmir earthquake. The best we can do now is to minimize that price by acknowledging that we have a problem and taking remedial steps to the best of our ability.

Yes! We are living in a geologically precarious zone. We need to really map this zone in detail to begin with. Map the old and existing landslides closely next. Correlate the two and see what we get and have our mitigation strategies in place accordingly. That would be the strategy I would recommend. There are studies and reports on the entire Darjeeling-Sikkim area but that will not serve this purpose. We need very detailed work here specific to the urban area under consideration. It would also need to be done by a team of geologists, geographers and engineers who should be able to slant their specializations towards landslide hazard determination and mitigation. The work should be carried out in close consultation by social activists like you so that the deliverables can be directly used for policy making.

Personally, I think the best way to go about it would be to approach some Govt agency (like NDMA) for funding, get a team of motivated and qualified people together and start working on it ourselves rather than waiting for people to help us.


About Dr Malay Mukul

Dr Malay Mukul is perhaps the only scientist and geologist in CSIR Centre for Mathematical Modeling and Computer Simulation, at Bangalore who is fond of quoting John Lennon!
He did his Ph.D from Rochester University (USA) but much before that he did his schooling from Dr Graham’s Homes, Kalimpong, hence his intimate knowledge of this area. Malay who is the recipient of numerous awards and has published many papers and books, is still a frequent visitor to Kalimpong where his parents are settled.
For more on Dr Mukul please visit this link (

In the above letter sent to me by Malay, the title and italics are mine

praful rao

Monday, November 24, 2008

Images from the Landslide Hazard Workshop at Darjeeling on 21Nov2008


Comment by praful rao

My thanks to Anubhav Sood of St Joseph's College, North Point, Darjeeling and Hemkar Rana (ex - member STH, Kalimpong) for the photographs.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Engineer's perspective


- Er. Upendra Mani Pradhan

B.Sc., B.Tech(Hons.), M.Tech(R.P.), A.I.T.P.(India)


Landslides may rightly be called the “Tsunami of the Hills”! It is, therefore, very encouraging to note that a Landslide Hazard Workshop is being hosted on 21st. November, 2008 at Darjeeling with the eminent Geographer and Landslide Expert, Prof. Leszek Starkel of Poland attending as the Chief Guest.


Over 40 years of experience in Urban and Rural Planning has taught me that a simplistic approach, of building a wall here and a drain there, will not solve the problems of landslides in the hills. Numerous inter-connected factors come into play, requiring a deeper study of cause and effect that will finally lead us to a more Holistic Approach. A few points for interaction during the Workshop are given below :


This has been tried out by several municipalities from time to time, but the duration of success is barely a couple of months, after which the polybags reappear! The main objection being most of the marketing of goods are done in modern, attractive, polythene packages, which the municipalities cannot control. It is said that polythene and plastic bottles take as many as 400-700 years to just begin to breakdown in a land-fill – and they constitute millions of tons in garbage heaps of urban areas! Why not recycle this environmentally degrading waste material of global nuisance value into long-lasting attractive coloured modular-sized bricks for the ever growing building industry? Are the Tatas, Birlas, Mittals and Ambanis listening?? They can get their raw materials free of cost !


It is often believed that ‘Jhoras’ are the main cause for landslides in the hills. This is far from the truth. In fact, ‘Jhoras’ form part of the natural drainage system and are meant to be Nature’s ‘safety valves’ to quickly and safely carry away rainfall runoff from large hilly catchment areas, to the rivers and seas in the plain areas below, without causing any damages along the way. ‘Jhoras’ carry water and so maintain natural vegetation like trees, shrubs, grasses along their sides to prevent toe erosion. But Man, in his infinite wisdom, cuts down such trees and shrubs; indiscriminately throws waste-matter into them; removes stone boulders, cobbles and sand; blocks the ‘jhoras’ and constructs buildings on them, thereby violating all the unwritten environmental laws of Nature! Mother Nature revolts and retaliates through landslides!

Another reason is that our hill areas are bombarded with heavy rainfall during the monsoon (2000mm to 3000mm per annum). In the natural scheme of things, this precipitation partly permeates into the soil through open ground and partly flows as surface runoff and finds its way to the ‘jhoras’. But with intense urbanization in our towns, almost all open ground surfaces have been built upon or paved by roads, courtyards and footpaths, thereby all the rainfall now flows as surface runoff and enters the ‘jhoras’ with great velocity, far exceeding their normal carrying capacity. This results in toe erosion of the ‘jhoras’ which is the precursor to a landslide.

From the above it can be seen that our forefathers were no fools! They set up ‘Devi-Sthans’ (Place of worshipping Goddess) amidst ‘jhoras’for the simple reason that our ‘jhoras’ must be faithfully conserved as they have a vital role to play in our lives. ‘Jhora’ water can also be diverted into farm lands for irrigation purposes. However, in the hills, it is better not to use this water for surface-irrigating paddy crops, because stagnant water kept in the fields over a long stretch of time, may cause landslides. From careful observation, it can also be found that the percolated water through porous soil, normally finds its way back into the ‘jhoras’ at a lower point below – this is naturally filtered water, which is used by village folk for drinking purposes. Our ‘jhoras’ are sacred entities – let us spread awareness and restore them back to their pristene glory, through planned Conservation.


About a week ago, Newspapers carried bold headlines about the demolition drive taken up by Darjeeling Municipality, to knock down two of the eight storied building constructed illegally within the Municipal area. A photograph of Darjeeling Town also accompanied this news. What pained me most was the depressing photograph of the so called “Queen of Hill Stations” – virtually in Rags, with sub-standard, un-aesthetic, tall buildings piled one-on-top-of-the-other!

The same is true for Kurseong and Kalimpong Towns. In Sikkim, Gangtok, Ramphu, Namchi, Singtam and the other towns are doing no better, Mirik is a relatively new lake-town, but its overall development and upkeep leaves much to be desired. We claim that Tourism is one of our main economic planks – but once they arrive, the tourists experience a sense of deprivation and despair. There is no planning involved in all these towns and there is a great shortage of greenery, parks and playgrounds, public utilities and facilities and other infrastructure necessary to qualify as a Tourist Town. The enthusiastic tourists surely deserve a better deal!

Darjeeling and Kurseong Towns are now super saturated – all private lands have been built upon and many available public lands have been encroached and also built upon – not sparing ‘jhora’ lands! Both these towns are surrounded by tea gardens and forests, and there is no further scope for horizontal expansion in areas of low gradient. The only possibility is to go upwards, which explains why illegal construction of buildings 5-8 stories (i.e. 60 feet) high are taking place at random. Needless to say that tall concrete buildings exert excessive pressure on the land, heightening the possibility of landslides. Since land has become a very scarce commodity, Illegal constructions are now mushrooming on lands that have a natural gradient of 50 degrees or more. Exceeding the “Angle of Repose” of soil, is a direct invitation to landslides! Foolish but daring people are also building houses on the surface of old landslides, many of which have been washed away during monsoon rains. We don’t seem to learn from our past mistakes! It is distressing to note that all three Towns are sitting on time bombs – Kurseong atop the infamous Ambootia Landslide (supposed to be the biggest in Asia!); Darjeeling atop the Aloobari-Toongsoong and Jail Landslides, and Kalimpong atop the Sindebong, Bhalukhop-Alaichikhop Landslides! A disaster of unimaginable magnitude is waiting to happen anytime!!

Before India’s independence, the British never allowed any construction in the hills to exceed 2 stories, and most of the structures at that time were neat little cottages, made of wood and other light-weight materials. Now, the maximum height of buildings allowed by the Darjeeling Hill Municipal Building Bye-laws is 11.5 meters ( 38 feet) or 4 stories, assuming that room height of 8.5 feet to 9.0 feet will be sufficient for the cold climate of Darjeeling hills. This figure was arrived at during an Expert Committee meeting held at Calcutta (in which I was also a Member). The Darjeeling Municipality has now raised this to 13.5 meters!

Kalimpong and Mirik are better situated, as the Municipal areas are surrounded by large tracts of Khasmahal farm-lands. Sikkim Towns also have restricted space for horizontal expansion, as a result of which heavy RCC high-rise buildings are fast coming up everywhere, giving nightmares to everyone – especially during the rainy season!

The only solution to this problem is to follow Gandhiji’s “Back to the Village” policy and prepare and implement Balanced Regional Growth Plans for the entire hill areas, interspaced with ideally located and well planned Satellite Townships


It has been found that bamboo groves near human settlements in the hills can be dangerous. As bamboo has very shallow roots, the entire grove, having dense interlocked root system, tends to slide down as a solid mass, thereby threatening to cause big landslide damages. Some fast growing native trees with deep root system were also tried out to conserve soil on landsides. However in a few years time, the trees became very tall , big and weighty and finally the trees themselves were responsible for causing fresh landslides. What should perhaps be done is to go in for light shrubs and grasses (e.g. Vitever) with deep root system. An inventory should be made of suitable plants by the Soil Conservation and Forest Departments for immediate testing and application at landslide sites and along both sides of ‘jhoras’. Stunting of suitable deep-rooted trees to reduce their weight may also help. ‘Soil Nailing Techniques’ also sound good – but need to be thoroughly investigated for applicability in the our hills.

It is seen that major road alignments, cutting across our hills, are responsible for triggering the maximum number of landslides during monsoon period. While extensive road connectivity is undoubtedly very important, taking a road upto a certain major focal point in the rural area and then connecting this centre with other secondary villages by ropeways, for movement of both passengers and goods, could be a viable alternative for economic development of the hills, Ropeways need minimum land for putting up their towers and, therefore, cause least damages to the hill sides. While constructing roads, use of blasting technology should be avoided as much as possible, as there is risk of sliding owing to vibrations under the soil. If geological formations permit, we can also think of constructing a series of tunnels (as they have in Pune), which will also reduce travel lengths considerably.

Of late, increase of vehicle population in the hills, is simply maddening! As a result, vehicles are forced to move at crawling speed and searching for suitable space to park the car becomes an impossible and frustrating task! Better to introduce and encourage a system of mass transportation by mini-buses.


In the beginning of British Rule around 1836 – it is said that the entire hill areas of Darjeeling and Sikkim were dense forests, with no sign of urbanization as we know it today. Forests were clear-felled in a big way in and around Darjeeling. Huge migration of labour took place from Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim and tea plantations were laid by the British. Human settlements, therefore, took place in Forest lands. In 1975, it is learnt that the total forest area in the hill region was 1141 sq. km. distributed over the 3 forest divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. Reserved Forests covered 1113, Protected forests 9 and unclassified State forests 29 Out o the total 1141, only 466 were available for economic exploitation by the State of West Bengal. It is a known fact that the Forest Department zealously guards its property and quite rightly so, otherwise by now everything would have been reduced to barren hills. Transfer of forest lands is normally not allowed except in very rare cases when equivalent land must be handed back to the forest department by the transferee, together with cost of re-plantation. This is a wonderful system to preserve our ecology and bio-diversity.

Not much is known about “Waste lands”, but one can presume that they belong to a category of land, which has not been put to any use so far! It is high time that thorough geological studies and mapping of Waste lands are carried out immediately and appropriate steps taken to put them to good use. First and foremost, we need to identify a number of large (say 5 - 15 sq.kms. each ) suitable, physio-geographically stable areas for setting up Planned Satellite / New Townships in the region. Do we have a local qualified Hill Geologist amongst us?


For centuries in Human history, valuable lands in the plains have been reclaimed from the sea or marshes, on which planned cities and other infrastructure have been developed (e.g. Holland where 40% of land is below the sea level ; Salt Lake City in USA; Salt Lake in Kolkata; Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai). I feel that huge tracts of stable, valuable lands can also be reclaimed in the hill areas for setting up our future towns and cities.

It is observed that the most stable lands in the hills are found on hill tops and spurs. The Main Road strip of Kalimpong is located on a spur, where landslides are not known to have occurred at all. This is because drainage ‘jhoras’ are situated at quite a distance away. The catchment area on top being small, flow of water in these ‘jhoras’ is also minimal and therefore their erosion capacity is practically nil. Suppose we find a number of hillocks (preferably waste lands), adjacent to each other and having natural slopes of low gradient – then we will discover that they are separated from each other by shallow valleys at a formative stage. If we draw a cross section of the hillocks, we will see cross sectional lines having low gradient and representing less stable top soils of varying thicknesses and characteristics, below which there will be more stable soils and rocks. The thickness of the top soil can be anything between 3 feet to 10 feet or more. The idea is to bulldoze the entire topsoil and create large terraced surfaces made up of stabilized rocks. The excavated topsoil/rocks can be used to fill up the shallow valleys and fully compacted. This way we will be able to create extensive stable ground surfaces on rocky, freshly created terraced ground levels, on which we can plan out our NEW TOWNS AND CITIES! Of course, all infrastructure like roads, footpaths, multi-storied car parking, water supply, drainage, sewerage, telecommunication, public facilities and utilities etc. must be in place. Water harvesting from roof-tops, Solar Energy for heating and lighting etc. must also be part and parcel of the Project. All this may sound utopian, but this is not beyond the realm of possibility! The most attractive part of this Project is that it will be LANDSLIDE-FREE, as the unstable layers of soil on top will have been removed!! TO ACHIEVE THIS DREAM, WE WILL HAVE TO THINK BOLDLY AND DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY!! This is only a theoretical concept. WHERE IS OUR GEOLOGIST ?



My thanks to Mr UM Pradhan for this article and I would welcome photographs/ articles from anyone for this STH blog

praful rao

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A milestone on the road ahead..

21Nov 2008 marks an important milestone on the road ahead for SaveTheHills (STH). We are engaged in organizing (and I daresay this) a national level Workshop on Landslide Hazards in Darjeeling/ Sikkim Himalayas at Southfield College, Darjeeling.
While the aim of this conference is to raise awareness amongst all about the serious landslide problem here and most importantly to initiate preventive and mitigation action against this hazard, it is also to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Oct 1968, disaster when thousands perished in this part of the world in landslides triggered by torrential rains.
Also, exactly 40 years ago in November 1968, a young geographer from Poland arrived here to study landslides and on 21Nov08 the same person- Prof Leszek Starkel, now a world famous scientist and recipient of numerous awards joins us for the workshop as our Main Speaker.
I have placed above the invitation front cover and the program schedule for the workshop.

praful rao

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why SaveTheHills (STH) must prevail...

Two days ago, Prabal Ghatraj (SLIDE 1) of Lower Sindebung, Kalimpong met and told me what is now a familiar story. He and his brother are unemployed and live with their family of 7 in Lower Sindebung.
Some years ago they used to get 25 murrees of rice from 4.65acres of land, now that has shrunk to a mere 3 murrees because they have lost 3 acres of land to landslides. Copies of the letters which they submitted to the govt authorities years ago are placed as SLIDE 2 and 3. (SLIDE 3 documents some of the farmers who have lost land and the amount of land lost in Sindebung, Kalimpong)
There has been no reaction from any where.

Sindebung has featured on this blog many times and is a place where the landslides are due to drainage problem - one which can be corrected, given the will and the resources.
It is issues such as these that STH endeavors to take up at the highest levels and will certainly be highlighted in the forthcoming Landslide Hazard Workshop which is being organized by STH at Darjeeling on 21Nov2008.

praful rao

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


"Across the world in every kind of environment and region known to man, increasingly dangerous weather patterns and devastating storms are abruptly putting an end to the long running debate over whether or not climate change is real. Not only is it real but it is here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon : the man-made natural disaster"

- Barack Obama


Comment by praful rao

I do hope the CHANGE that may sweep thru America in the next few days will also take place in Disaster Management in this part of the world and that landslide prevention and mitigation will take on a new meaning and urgency.

My thanx to Dr David Petley of Durham University for the above quote.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Depression turns into Cyclone (RASHMI)

Cyclone brings rain rage

Calcutta, Oct. 26: A cyclone called Rashmi is inching towards coastal Bengal, carrying with it the threat of heavy rain in Calcutta though the city does not fall in the storm’s path projected till late this evening.

The Met office said a deep depression over west-central Bay of Bengal, which caused Saturday’s rain, had intensified into a cyclone and was headed for the Bengal-Bangladesh coast near Sagar Island.

Cyclone Rashmi, rated in the low-intensity Category 1 till this evening, is expected to make landfall between 8 and 9.30am on Monday.

“The cyclone now lies about 350km south of Calcutta and is expected to hit the Bengal-Bangladesh coast on Monday morning. The cyclone has been named Rashmi,” said G.C. Debnath, the director of the weather section at the Regional Meteorological Centre in Alipore.

Met officials said gusty winds at speeds between 60 and 80kmph were expected along the Bengal coast, along “with heavy to very heavy rain” on Monday. Officials also warned of heavy rain in Calcutta.

The officials said tonight that the cyclone was proceeding in a north north-eastern direction and was expected to move into Bangladesh soon after hitting land.

“Calcutta is not in the path of the cyclone. But it will cause rains in the city. We are keeping a close watch on the movement of the cyclone,” an official said. But he added that since 350 kilometres lay between the cyclone and land, a shift in course could not be ruled out.

The district magistrates of East Midnapore, South 24-Parganas, North 24-Parganas and West Midnapore have been asked to take precautionary measures, finance minister Asim Dasgupta said.

Extract from India Meteorological Website (


Date and Time of Issue : 27TH October 2008 at 0100 hours IST.

Information on Cyclone: The Cyclonic Storm “Rashmi” over Northwest Bay of Bengal moved rapidly in a North – Northeasterly Direction and lay centered at 2030 hrs IST of 26th october, 2008 near latitude 20.5 deg. North , longitude 88.5 deg. East and about 230 km south of Kolkata.

Forecast :

FURTHER INTENSIFICATION : Will intensify further.

DIRECTION OF MOVEMENT : Will move in a North-Northeasterly direction.

EXPECTED LANDFALL AREA : Cross West Bengal – Bangladesh Coast around 89.0 Deg East

EXPECTED TIME OF LANDFALL : by tomorrow, Monday, 27th October Morning.



Heavy to very heavy rain likely to occur at isolated places in Coastal Orissa and coastal districts of West Bengal during next 12 hours. Heavy rain also likely to occur at isolated places over Tripura, Sub Himalayan West Bengal & Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands during next 36 hrs. Heavy rain also likely to occur at isolated places over Tripura, Sub-Himalayan West Bengal & Sikkim and Andaman and Nicobar Islands during next 48 hours.


Comment by praful rao

Judging by the predicted track, hopefully RASHMI will also miss us as did cyclones SIDR (Oct2007) and NARGIS (May2008) in the past.
What never ceases to worry me is, what sort of defense mechanism do we have in the hills (except of course fervent prayer) against any of these monsters moving in our direction??


Sunday, October 26, 2008

A worrisome development today (26Oct2008)

Placed below is the latest satellite photo from the India Meteorological Dept website. It shows unseasonal rain creeping up our way in the form of a depression in the Bay of Bengal.
It is just this type of weather phenomenon that we should watch out and be prepared for.

Severe Weather Warnings
Date: OCTOBER 26, 2008




(Italics are mine)

praful rao

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The RTI application and follow up

The RTI Act2005, is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in our democracy. Despite the fact that the efficacy of the act has to an extent been watered down, I am glad to tell you that it is still is a weapon worth using.
I had asked for some information from the district administration, regarding Landslide Hazards in Darjeeling district on 19Aug2008. Having received no reply by the due date, I queried the State Commission recently by email. Placed below is my RTI application and the reply

praful rao

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wither SaveTheHills (STH)??

I haven't updated this blog for sometime now and the reasons are two fold:-
  • 2008 was an extremely lucky year as far as landslides . With less than average rainfall in Jul/Aug and highly deficient rainfall in Sep2008 we escaped with just a few slides in the month of Jun2008.
    Quite naturally (and very happily too!) there were no washed away bridges to photograph or grim stories to recall. Good for us and I hope we are as lucky in the years ahead too!!

  • Hidden behind the seemingly dormant and inactive period, there has been a virtual storm in STH - with a flurry of behind the scene activities taking place:-
    a) So on 21Sep2008, we had a meeting at the local community hall and STH today is an NGO. We are in the process of registering the body as a society. I will in the course of time post brief member profiles of all the STH executive members.
    b) Besides working towards raising awareness about landslides in the Darjeeling and Sikkim hills, STH took on a different role on 18Oct2008.
    Hearing the plea of a young hardworking but under-privileged student, Subash Chhetri, from Sinji a remote village in Kalimpong subdivision, who is currently doing his B. Tech (agriculture) in Uttar Banga Krishi Vishwa Vidylaya, Cooch Behar, STH raised money from donors and gifted the student with a laptop. The seven donors included individuals and institutions from Sikkim and Kalimpong.

    We also used the occasion to remind people that it was the 40 anniversary of the Oct 1968 disaster in these hills when thousands died in landslides. To commemorate this, STH is organizing a national level workshop on Landslide Hazards in Darjeeling on 21 Nov 2008. Prof Leszek Starkel a world renowned geographer who has been studying landslides in this area for the past 40 years will be the Chief Guest as well as main speaker. Other resource persons will be drawn from North Bengal University, Border Roads Task Force and STH. Representatives from Sikkim will also attend. Officials from National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and State Disaster Management Authority are also expected to attend.

With the Landslide Hazard Workshop coming up on 21Nov2008 at Southfield (formerly Loreto) College, we will be busy and the posts may slow down for some time; HOWEVER I would like to reassure everyone that STH is very much alive and kicking.
I leave you with a photograph from the small ceremony where we gave away the laptop.
(That's STH Exec member, Ms Gayatri Kharel, a structural engineer presenting the laptop to Subash Chhetri, B Tech student)

praful rao

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Nature's mood swings: Sept rainfall data analysis

Actual rainfall Sep2007 : 771mm
Actual rainfall Sep2008 : 172mm
Average rainfall Sept : 368mm (

  • Placed above please find the rainfall data of Darjeeling for the month of Sep2007/08.
    September is a month when the monsoons begin their withdrawal from the country as such the average rainfall for Sep is normally less than the 600mm odd which is the approx average for the other monsoon months. Yet, as is evident above the variation in the rainfall seems almost impossible to believe.
    Is this caused by global warming?? I don't know but here are some astonishing facts which emerge from the above table:-

    a) In Sep2007 we did have exceptionally heavy rainfall ie more than double the monthly average.
    b) In 3 days (05Sep-07Sep2007) it rained more than the monthly average.
    c) In Sep 2008 we had deficient rainfall ie less than half the monthly average.
    d) On a single day (06Sep2007) last year, it rained more (187mm) than it did the entire month this year (172mm)

Little wonder then that all the major landslides in the district and Sikkim occurred between 05-7Sep2007 and it was providence alone that stopped the rain thereafter.

This year we have been exceptionally lucky as far as landslides go.. but let us not depend on the luck factor alone!!

Comment by praful rao
My thanks to Compuset Darjeeling for the rainfall data.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A letter to the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority)

Briefly for those interested, the National Disaster Management Authority (link
here) is chaired by the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, the Vice-Chairman is Gen NC Vij (retd) and the person dealing with landslides and the states of W. Bengal and Sikkim is Dr Mohan Kanda ,IAS (retd).
This is my email to Dr Kanda today :-


Dr Mohan Kanda,
National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA),
Centaur Hotel,
Near IGI Airport,
New Delhi 110037

Initiation of landslide preventive measures in the Darjeeling Himalayas during the dry season from Oct08 to Jun2009

Dear Sir,

By way of a brief introduction, I am the convener of SaveTheHills (STH), which is a group of people working towards raising awareness about landslides in Darjeeling district. We formed STH, after a near disaster situation last Sep when torrential rains triggered off massive landslides in the Darjeeling/ Sikkim Himalayas.

2. The Darjeeling Himalayas comprise some of the most landslide prone areas in the country and is also today, a densely populated area. I daresay, that landslides seem to be a hazard which receives the least attention in disaster management perhaps due to the fact that it affects lesser numbers and then, even those affected ie the people living in these hills are apathetic and accept the hazard as a part of life in the mountains.

3. With an annual rainfall of 3000mm, landslides may well be a part of life in the Darjeeling Himalayas and it may be practicably impossible to prevent ALL landslides. But as you would agree, a consistent, multi-pronged and aggressive attack against this hazard can prevent a large number of landslides, mitigate many others and also delay/decrease erosion in these mountains to a significant degree. Sadly, such a holistic approach towards landslide prevention (involving awareness programs, short to long term landslide prevention measures, such as afforestation, correction of drainage problems etc) has never been undertaken in these hills and is definitely the need of the hour.

4. This year we have been lucky thus far; as rainfall has been less than the monthly average both in July and August and except for some landslides in the month of June we have remained virtually unscathed. But this should not lull us into a false sense of security. In the NDMA meeting held in Shillong on the 10-11Jun2008, it was clearly told that we should expect an increase in rainfall to the tune of 20-30% in the northeast, in the years ahead, while at the same time the number of rainy days would decrease, causing more intense rainfall. So rather than remain inert during periods of less rain or in the ensuing winter months, it is now that we must work overtime to buttress up our defenses against landslides in the future.

5. In this regard, may I bring to your notice that “the paradigm shift” to prevention, mitigation and preparedness is yet to see the light of day at the district and subdivision level where disaster management is still limited ONLY to “relief”. Despite STH shouting hoarse about landslide prevention for a year now, literally no preventive work or awareness programs have been done in the whole district. The sharp increase in the number of anthropogenic landslides have only added a new dimension to our problem, with landslides creeping into our densely populated urban areas .(sketches of landslide areas in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik towns are available at

6. With the monsoons almost over, it is most important that we take full advantage of the dry period (Oct08-June09) ahead and initiate landslide prevention measures immediately so as to be better prepared for the rains in 2009 and later. Alarm bells have already been sounded by several prominent scientists about the dire state of the hills, and enough valuable time and money have been frittered away in workshops, meetings and surveys - the recommendations of which have seldom been implemented. Therefore, it is high time that a sustained landslide prevention program together with an intense awareness campaign be commenced at the grass root level (ie district and sub-divisional level) in Darjeeling district without further delay, if we are to avoid a major landslide disaster in the hills in the foreseeable future.

Yours sincerely,

(Praful Rao)
Wg Cdr (retd)

Copy to:-
a) Gen NC Vij (Retd) - Vice Chairman, NDMA

b) Shri KM Singh (Retd) – Member , NDMA

c) Shri ML Meena(IAS), Principal Secretary, Disaster Management Dept,Govt of West Bengal

d) Shri Surendra Gupta (IAS)-District Magistrate, Darjeeling


comment by praful rao

Hard copies of the above email have been couriered to all the above addressees and should be on their respective desks latest by Monday, 22Sep2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008


STH is one year old today, 15Sep2008.

Looking back, I can tell you we have come a long way...
looking forward, I must tell you we have much to do before anything even remotely connected with landslide prevention starts happening in our hills.
But we must persist - we are where we are because of our own lack of awareness, apathy and disinterest for decades so to expect things to change in a year or even in a decade would be foolish.

In the next year, STH will hopefully be a registered body and that should give us resources to work more effectively in this field - and light up an area which has been in the dark for too long.

My sincere thanks to all those who helped in different ways or made meaningful contributions in the past year; I look forward more interaction with all of you next year and in the years ahead.

praful rao

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Whatever happened after this??

While perambulating the web in search of articles on our landslide issue, I came across this one - I did not read it when it appeared in 2003 but having read it now, I can't help wondering whatever happened after the article was published?

The sad truth is : NOTHING
Excerpt from Times of India 16Jul2003

Darjeeling hills doomed: Geologists

KOLKATA: Geologists examining frequent landslides in West Bengal's Darjeeling hills fear that in about 75 years the vagaries of nature could destroy most of this popular summer getaway.

The forecast, made by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in a report, came as a rude blow to the state government, coming as it did after 24 people were killed by landslides in the region this month.

"We have received the distressing GSI report on the future of Darjeeling hills. We are examining the options to limit the damage to the hills," state Relief Minister Hafiz Alam Sairani said.

The report was presented to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on Tuesday by Public Works Department (PWD) Minister Amar Chowdhury after his return from Darjeeling, some 700 km north of here.

According to the report, vast stretches of the Darjeeling hills and its many hill resorts like Darjeeling town, Kurseong and Mirik may not survive beyond 75 years.

The future of Kurseong and its adjoining areas, where several prominent public schools are located, seemed to be the most bleak.

This was primarily because huge deposits of loose soil covering the rocky foundation were washed away with the rains, causing the landslides.

Deforestation, the blocking of natural drainage systems and thoughtless construction had also weakened the soil of the hills.

The GSI did not hold out much hope for the arterial Hill Cart Road, connecting Darjeeling and Kurseong with Siliguri town that has the nearest rail and air services.

The road suffers multiple landslides every year and remains closed to traffic for about two months for repairs. It is closed once again, resulting in thousands of tourists, who chose not to take risky detours, being stranded in Darjeeling.

The GSI said a more stable road could be built – if the road is re-laid on the rocky foundation after 25 metres of loose soil on which it stands is dug up.

The state has asked the centre for Rs 60 million to repair the road.


praful rao

Monday, September 8, 2008

Media coverage : Bringing our story to the world.

Over the many weeks that STH has been in existence, one of the things I have had to do is write-
firstly on this blog, then to a varied lot of people amongst whom are scientists, students, NGOs, government officials and then just ordinary people who are interested in our plight. Last but not least I have been writing to the print media and many papers have carried the story of a hazard which has remained unknown and ignored for too long.
Recently the above issue of ( carried the story in print (green dot). Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the online version of the story on the website.
Also, TEHELKA ( a prominent national magazine carries the story in it's most recent issue (print and online version) ; for those interested in reading it, the link for the Tehelka article is here

praful rao

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Aug2008 - yet another peaceful month

As I had blogged earlier, July 2008 turned out to be a very peaceful month.. a little deficient rain and no major landslides ....
And so it turned out in Aug2008; less than normal rainfall, no major landslides and no known deaths. Placed below is the rainfall data for Aug 2007 and 2008:-

Total rainfall (Aug2007) :- 506mm
Total rainfall (Aug2008) :- 597mm

Monthly average rainfall for AUG (10 years average) :- 647mm

Technically, September is a month when the monsoons recede and rainfall diminishes - let's hope that is true but just as a reminder how horribly wrong things can go wrong with weather these days....
The recent floods in Bihar were a result of excessive rain ie it because it rained a full 500% more than the monthly average rain (source CNN). Imagine that!!!

praful rao


My thanks to Compuset, Darjeeling for the rainfall data

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

And so life goes on...

‘Maybe the department is waiting for heavy casualties
Rangpo locals living under a shadow of fear

Our Correspondent
Around 130 families of Lower Jitlang and Majhua villages along the NH 31 A at Rangpo are living under fear ever since the monsoons started this year. The two areas have been already left vulnerable due to slides that occurred 3 years back.
The commencement of monsoons has seen further degradation of the slushy areas in the area triggering panic among the residents.
Lower Jitlang is situated on the upper side of the slides where around 50 families are staying. The lower part of the slides falls near NH 31 A at Majhua village with around 80 families.
Both the areas have come under danger zone, the residents say. We are not sure what will happen to us and our houses in the next heavy rainfall, they say with concern.
A few days ago, a big boulder slide down into a house in this area. Fortunately, no one was injured but the house was damaged.
A local Prem Basnett said that they have submitted memorandums to the concerned department last year itself but no response has come so far. No departmental officers have come to visit these areas, he said.
Maybe the department is waiting for heavy casualties, the locals said. They have demanded immediate response from the concerned department before calamity strikes.


Article from "Sikkim Express - 02Sep2007"

Monday, September 1, 2008

From the days papers...

Early Warning System
The hills around St Antony’s Colony in Munnar will have nine sets of wireless sensors, and (below) Joshua Freeman demonstrates one

Hridayadas Mohan is filled with awe and admiration whenever he sees those little “honeybee boxes” atop the hill that forms a backdrop to his house in the picturesque Munnar town in Idukki district. Mohan believes the tiny structures, covered by hoods for protection against the sun and the rain, offer a good chance to the 3,000-odd residents of St Antony’s Colony against Nature’s fury.

Landslides, a common feature in this most popular tourist spot in Kerala, are a bane for the people living in the area. The last human casualty may have occurred three years ago, but every year the district witnesses a number of landslips that bring down tonnes of mud and rocks, causing untold misery. “People here live in constant fear,” says Mohan, a community worker belonging to the predominantly Tamil-speaking population that moved there centuries ago to work in the tea plantations. An abandoned government college and a partially damaged temple bear testimony to this fact.

The frequency with which landslides ravage Munnar brought Maneesha Ramesh and her colleagues at Amrita School of Engineering (ASE), near Quilon, to the sleepy town. Together with several European universities and firms, they are installing a network of wireless sensors that can pick up the slightest of rumblings in the earth in order to alert the people to an impending landslide in real time. “If we can pick up the right signals, we stand a good chance of informing the people about any threat days in advance,” says Maneesha.

The scientists have deployed a number of wireless sensors in and around St Antony’s Colony. They are buried a couple of metres into the soil and can measure the moisture content, pressure, vibration of the earth and several other geological parameters. The data are subsequently relayed via a satellite to a simulation lab on the ASE campus some 200km away.

The researchers are using the information to simulate the behaviour of the soil in Munnar. “We got tonnes of soil from Munnar for creating the facility as soil properties vary from place to place,” says A. Kailash, a team member. They are even inducing rainy conditions using artificial precipitation and subjecting the soil to vibration through mechanical means.

“Landslide prediction is a complex science, but we expect to get a handle on it,” says Joshua Freeman, a US engineer who is on the ASE faculty and has been instrumental in setting up the simulation studies. Freeman thinks it is important to weed out false alarms as that would lead to people losing faith in the system.

While the Amrita researchers are involved in the simulation studies and actual deployment of the sensor network, nine European institutions — including the University of Rome, the University Polytechnic of Catalonia in Spain and Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland — are handling the design and fabrication of the sensors. The project, called Winsoc (Wireless Sensor Network with Self-Organisation Capabilities), seeks to mimic biological systems.

“Living systems are intrinsically robust against cells dying or being damaged,” says Sergio Barbarossa of the University of Rome, the overall coordinator for the Winsoc project. “The behaviour of most organs is an interesting feature, resulting from the interactions of many cells, where no one cell is particularly robust or even aware of the whole behaviour.” A good example of this, he says, is the rhythm of the heart, which is controlled by the interaction of several thousand pacemaker cells, each of which can be seen as a pulse oscillator. Even though the individual oscillators are not particularly stable or reliable, the heart as a whole is extremely stable and can readily adapt to changing conditions.

“This sets Winsoc apart from earlier similar attempts,” says Maneesha. While the sensor network is based on many individual censors, it acts as a single, coherent system. The network is self-organising because even if a few censors are damaged, the others take over their task. Sensors are bound to fail as they work under the harshest of conditions.

With the European partners shipping in the wireless sensors soon, the Munnar landslide prediction project is all set to take off. For the time being, the Amrita researchers are using sensors procured from elsewhere. “We hope the network to be ready by the next rainy season,” says Maneesha. They also intend to install similar systems in other parts of the district.

The consortium is planning to use the self-organising wireless network for other natural disasters as well. For instance, a team of researchers from the Centre for Science and Society in the Czech Republic is readying such a system for advance detection of forest fires.

The ASE researchers may still be months away from successfully operating a landslide warning system, but the inhabitants of St Antony’s Colony are already confident of its usefulness. The people, who normally move to safer places whenever there is a heavy downpour, did not shift out of their homes this monsoon as they were hopeful of getting advance information about any devastating event.