Unplanned, faulty buildings tremble under weather events in the fragile Himalayan regions

  • Materials for building construction in the sensitive Indian Himalayas have seen a transition from traditionally used wood, rock and other local materials to bricks and concrete.
  • Experts claim that there is no plan guiding the constructions in hill stations in the region and several of these buildings are built in contravention to building codes, on unstable slopes and are prone to natural disasters.
  • The fragile Himalayan slopes are prone to earthquakes, landslides and other extreme weather events

Bimla Devi is a 48-year-old resident of Joshimath, staying just off the approach road to the hilly town, on the rugged slopes. Devi’s two-storeyed house was constructed around four decades ago using primarily locally available material such as iron and wooden pillars or beams as supporting structures, burnt bricks and mortar as walls and baked clay, locally called pathal, for the roof. The two floors of the house are situated at different elevations on the slope and open in different directions. Situated around 300 metres from the road, this is one of the few houses in the municipal town with traditional architecture.

With rising population, urbanisation, increased commercial construction and an overall increased demand, there is low availability of traditional construction material. Documents from Namami Ganga Project claimed that in 2011 the total population of Joshimath including floating population and military establishments stood at 36,130 while in 2026 it is projected to touch 46,730.

Last year, a special committee of experts from the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority and the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI)-Roorkee, studied the ongoing problem of land subsidence in Joshimath. In its report, submitted in September 2022, it the committee noted that many of the buildings that they observed in Joshimath were of ‘poor quality’.

A traditional old style building situated on the slopes of Joshimath in Uttarakhand. Photo by-Manish Kumar/Mongabay
A building with traditional architecture and materials situated on the slopes of Joshimath in Uttarakhand. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

These buildings were said to be incapable of withstanding minor differential ground settlement (sinking) which is normal in such hilly regions, the report said. Joshimath, which falls under the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, is in Zone V (very risky) of India’s seismic zonation map of 2006, making the region prone to disasters like earthquakes.

Read more: As cracks widen in Joshimath, reasons lay hidden underground

Shimla’s homes on steep slopes

In other Himalayan towns and states too, rapid urbanisation is increasing the pressure on the eco-sensitive zones.

In the tourist hotspot of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, for example, the draft development plan says that that the city, when planned in the 70s, was envisioned for a population of 25,000 persons. The population currently is 2.40 lakh besides the additional floating tourist population. Government records show that nearly 97.42 percent of the total geographical area of Himachal Pradesh is prone to landslides.

An expert committee report submitted before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), admitted that 83 percent of the lifeline buildings in Shimla were unsafe. Lifeline buildings refer to the important infrastructure buildings like police stations, fire stations, hospitals, power houses and others which could be used as emergency response during disasters. It noted that buildings are allowed on slopes that lie at an angle of up to 45 degrees, according to the interim development plan of Shimla. However, many of these buildings are built on slopes over 45 degrees, right up to an angle of 70 degrees. The slopes in Shilma, according to this document, are of ‘meta-stable’ nature which means currently they are stable but any geographical change, external pressure like high rainfall or increased burden on them could make it highly unstable and invite disasters like landslides.

Where does the design go wrong?

Sriparna Saha, a sustainable building design consultant at Dehradun told Mongabay-India that replicating building models used in the plains, in hilly areas, is one of the reasons for increasing vulnerability of damages and unscientific faulty designs.

A building constructed by cutting the slopes. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay
A building in a village in Uttarakhand constructed by cutting the slopes. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

“There is now a mad rush to copy the plains when it comes to building construction. In such a case, lesser attention is given on the slope stability which is a different challenge for the hills. Many try to artificially cut the rocks to flatten their base and construct their houses, going against the natural landscape. The best option in such regions is to construct designs which lead to least interference with the natural landscape,” she said.

Explaining further on the kind of materials used in the newer constructions, she said, “Use of reinforced concrete (RC) structures for making the skeleton of the house does not have any issue and is recommended for stability. The problem comes when constructions happen without analysing the soil type on which it is built. It is compounded when they are built along the natural water drainage of the slope.” This and other structural irregularities occur because experts often do not visit the site and are involved remotely, she noted, ” She however attributes this to the lower level of awareness rather than the cost factor.

According to the 2000 Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) guidelines for selection of materials for construction in hilly regions, timber, cement concrete, mild steel, dressed stone, burnt brick in cement mortar are some of the materials that are good for mass density and compressive strength. There is another set of recommendations as per the National Building Code 2005 which talks about making buildings in disaster prone areas. The National Building Code of India (NBC) essentially provides guidelines for regulating building construction activities across the country.

The code and BIS norms recommend making a foundation of not less than 7.5mm, making houses in clusters, making space for sunlight to enter the house and other parameters. In an analysis of the building and construction regulations, by the Centre for Environmental Law Education, Research and Advocacy (CEERA) of the National Law School of India University, the researchers have hinted that these national norms are more apt for the plains but lack specialised recommendations for construction along the slopes.

A separate study from 2006, on vernacular hill design by CEPT University, Ahmedabad claimed that using wood in walls, as is done in traditional architecture, stablises the horizontal thrust during earthquakes. More use of wood also leads to lighter construction and hence, better seismic response during tremors.

Regulating constructions on hills

According to the National Building Code (NBC), any site above 600 metres of height from the average mean sea level or slopes with average 30 degree angle are considered as ‘hills’. There are also some local building bye-laws such as the Uttarakhand Building Bye-Laws and Regulations of 2011 in Uttarakhand. It talks about limiting only three storeys beyond ground level in Mussoorie and going maximum up to 11 metres above the ground while in Nainital it has been confined to 7.5 metres in height.

Several buildings along the slope at Devprayag in Uttarakhand. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay
Buildings constructed along the slope at Devprayag in Uttarakhand. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

The NBC also talks about construction of buildings as per the approved maps from the local development authorities in regulated and critical areas which can ensure compliance to NBC, local bye-laws to ensure the buildings are structurally strong to withstand disasters and as per the local geography. These need the certifications and approvals of architects and appointed engineers. The bye-law also talks about the ceiling of heights in hilly regions, minimum areas and other safety standards. But in many cases open defiance to such bye-laws are also seen.

However a 2017 study done by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee in Mussoorie and Nainital found that several buildings came up in these cities in Uttarakhand were in contravention to the bye-laws and went  upto 20 metres of the height. The first seismic code design came up in 1962 and the elements of disaster prone buildings were reinforced in NBC 2002.

The study of the two popular hill stations revealed that around 50 percent of the buildings studied were pre-code buildings (came before 1962) and were the most prone to damages in case of earthquakes as the rules for disaster prone buildings came later.

The study also hinted that NBC does not cater to the demands of the hill buildings but if constructed with its provisions it offers better disaster preparedness compared to other non-compliant buildings. It also lamented that in the Indian Himalayas, implementation of such code is often lacking and the design issues often are determined by the state building bylaws, adding to the woes of structural stability of hill buildings.

Lacks of master plans, building regulations

Several development plans have been crafted for hill towns of Shimla, Nainital, Sikkim and Aizawal. But there are other hill townswhich are now seeing the rise of population and buildings but lack a Master Plan and regulations.

Manuj Aggarwal, a green building consultant working in the Himalayan regions in Uttarakhand told Mongabay-India that most of the hill stations in India lack a master plan and are a result of rampant unplanned and unscientific planning.

“In hilly regions, several unplanned buildings started mushrooming along the approach road and nearby slopes. There is a major dearth of master plan, regulations and laws which can enforce people to go for sustainable, disaster prone buildings. There needs to be such regulations which can encourage people to go for scientific designs. For this the government can also consider giving incentives to those buildings who opt for using locally available materials or design scientific buildings which can encourage others to go the sustainable way,” he told Mongabay-India.

He said that during infrastructure development projects, while breaking mountains, rocks are dumped into the river which ultimately widens the river areas and increases the water level.  This in turn increases the vulnerability of nearby human habitations and land area, making them more prone to flooding. Aggarwal suggested that instead of dumping the rocks in the river, the government can, instead, give the rocks to the locals, through an auctioning process, and the rocks can effectively be used for building construction. A similar auctioning process is followed with timber that is cut for infrastructure development and can be used by the local residents.

A traditional old-style building at Joshimath along the slope. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay
A traditional building at Joshimath along the slope. With rising population, urbanisation, increased commercial construction and an overall increased demand, there is low availability of traditional construction material. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

“The major problems now happening in hills is that as soon as the connectivity with major cities in the plains improved, many started constructing rapidly (as construction material became easier to access and transport) with least sustainable design compliance which also proved cheaper for them. Such a practice is creating more issues,” he said. He also advocated for opening local consultation centres, training centres of locals with expert design experts which can help them in making sustainable and disaster-prone buildings based on the local conditions.

Experts however also pointed out the houses constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) in hilly regions seemed to be better due to their compliance to the NBCs and local bye-laws which leads to more scrutiny at multiple levels.

Unplanned design, faulty building design however are not the only issues that are creating problems for the Himalayan hills. In 2011, due to a massive earthquake around 34,000 buildings collapsed and 60 were killed in Sikkim as per government records. Praful Rao, Convenor of Save the Hills from Sikkim claimed that lack of drainage system in such hills and the rising extreme weather events cascade the problem while the impacts of changing rainfall patterns are adding up to the woes too.

He also cited the examples of extra pressure now put on the fragile Himalayan regions in Sikkim and nearby areas due to the increased intrusion of power projects, road construction and other projects. He claimed that rapid urbanisation in such areas should be regulated by the government and steps like formulating a separate ministry for the hills and mountains of India is needed to tackle several issues of the hills.


Banner image: Several buildings constructed on the slopes of Joshimath in Uttarakhand. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

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