The state and phenomenon of landslides


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The state and phenomenon of landslides

  1. 1. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides The State and Phenomenon of Landslides: A Study from Bhutan1 Abstract The civil society and growth pattern in the subsistence-oriented agricultural farming community in the hills have also been equally responsible for the recent increase in frequency and intensity of landslides. Given the higher density of permanent settlement of humans and live stocks, the commercialized deforestation and inundation, the over-grazing in the forest and trampling over vegetations by cattle’s, and the defense-strategic construction of motor-able transportation network, the natural calamity has increasingly assumed the character of man-made hazard. This is supposedly the standard scientific-technical explanation of natural-cum-manmade hazards like landslide, and would complete the picture of causations process involved with landslides, in the subtropical zone of North-east India, Sikkim and Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. At best, the reasoning is however universal in application and abstract in nature. It is arguable that the particular form and nature of political governance under the despotic monarchy in Bhutan itself is, to a large extent, instrumental in maintaining the unwarranted scope for landslides, and the unchecked negative consequences of such a disaster on the civil society. Key Words: landslide, natural disaster, civil society, state, bureaucracy, man-made hazard, monarchy, livelihood, farm production, consumption, eastern region Introduction The Himalayas is the most recently formed mountain range in the world. It is claimed to be still rising, changing and evolving. It is consequently characterized by highly unstable geomorphological forms and structure. Such an evolutionary process is equally shared by the Eastern Himalayas. The geology of subtropical zone between altitudes of 200 to 1800 meters above the sea-level in the eastern side of the Himalayas, in particular, is known for its highly complex structural features. Massive over thrusting of the crystalline strata has quite often occurred, and the partial metamorphism has been an ongoing phenomenon here. There are, at places, even remnants of the original sedimentary deposits (NES, 1992, pp.11-12). The natural instability in the Eastern Himalayas unfailingly makes it often relatively more vulnerable to the natural hazards. The major seismic movements and disturbances though are observed to be rare (NES, 1992, p.12). Nonetheless, the geo-morphological evolution, and associated ecological dynamism, has often manifested itself in a specific category of natural disasters comprising mainly of soil erosion, hiss-slope movement and landslides. The category has over the centuries got exacerbated though the heavy intensity of rainfall received during It was originally published in a book edited by G D Sharma, entitled ‘Status of Landslides in North East India and Natural Disaster Management’, Assam University, Silchar, 1998, with an extended title. 1 Mahmood Ansari 1|Page
  2. 2. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides monsoons, in the foothill and sub-montane ranges of the eastern and southern population settlements in the Himalayas. The civil society and growth pattern in the subsistence-oriented agricultural farming community in the hills have also been equally responsible for the recent increase in frequency and intensity of landslides. Given the higher density of permanent settlement of humans and live stocks, the commercialized deforestation and inundation, the over-grazing in the forest and trampling over vegetations by cattle’s, and the defense-strategic construction of motor-able transportation network, the natural calamity has increasingly assumed the character of man-made hazard (NES, 1992, p.14). This is supposedly the standard scientific-technical explanation of natural-cum-manmade hazards like landslide, and would complete the picture of causations process involved with landslides, in the subtropical zone of North-east India, Sikkim and Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. At best, the reasoning is however universal in application and abstract in nature. In the present work, it is argued that the particular form and nature of political governance under the despotic monarchy in Bhutan itself is, to a large extent, instrumental in maintaining the unwarranted scope for landslides, and the unchecked negative consequences of such a disaster on the civil society. The masses almost helplessly keep on simply innovating the survival strategies and devising the reproduction scheme in the marginalized and threatened geographical space of southern and eastern regions of Bhutan in particular. Abstractions set aside, a concrete analysis of a concrete situation is thus in order. The chapter is divided into three sections. A brief profile of Bhutan is furnished in the first section. The informational failure of the State is examined in the first part of second section; the second part analyses the foreign aid-syndrome, parasitic nature and callous apathy of the State toward national projects on mapping of topography and forest and road management. The State-orchestrated uneven economic growth across regions of agrarian subsistence economy in eastern and southern regions of Bhutan (and consequences of landslides there in) is picked up as a case study to strengthen the main thesis in the third section. Conclusion follows at the last. 1. Background Profile Bhutan is a landlocked sovereign territory in the eastern Himalayas. It is a small leastdeveloped nation in the South Asia. Ninety years have passed since the official declaration of the end of a long era of feudal nobility rule under theocracy. The political system of hereditary monarchy was established in 1907 (Hasrat, 1980). It has never been subjugated by the British metropolitan capital in the course of history. There was no exogenous interference in domestic governance. Nonetheless, the national economy still stands at the very periphery of the world system. It remains principally a subsistence-oriented agrarian society and economy. The human population is approximately 6, 00,000 with an average density of 13 persons per square kilometer (RMAB, 1992); and livestock population approximately 4,35,4000 with an average density of 09 live stocks per square kilometer (RGOB, 1985). The country has merely Mahmood Ansari 2|Page
  3. 3. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides 2674 kilometers of pucca tar-coal road network till date (NES, 1992, p.25). With a total gross area of land standing at 46,500 square kilometers in the country, the above quantitative figures are very low by all standards. These pose no threat to the environmental balance. The forest cover over 59 percent approximately of the total area is still intact. The grasslands, river and alpine glaciers cover 25 percent, and the land area under crop cultivation is confined to approximately 16 percent of the total area in the country (NES, 1992, p.14). These are again welcome features for keeping ecological harmony. Given the favourable numerical values of significant variables, the frequency and intensity of landslides must not be anymore higher than that warranted by the geo-morphological and ecological instability characterizing the fragile structure parameters of the eastern Himalayas. The frequency of landslides are however much higher, and accelerating over the years in Bhutan. The explanation is sought in the callous inefficiency of a long regime of semi-feudal public bureaucracy under the despotic monarchy. 2. Information Failure The monarchical State has continuously been failing in providing vital information’s. First, the vehicle drivers and commuters as yet are ultimately the principal source of information on natural disasters. The radio transmission occasionally covers the news on landslides, and the only government weekly magazine-cum-newspaper, The Kuensel, furnishes the “selectively detailed” story on the major landslides. There is no television station, and the television viewing is legally banned in the country. Second, the Central Statistical Organization of Bhutan is the apex public institution having mandated to collect tabulate and publish quantitative information’s and data on society and economy. The Publication does not cover the natural calamity like landslides. The Border Roads Organization of India has wings of the General Reserve Engineering Force and Border Road Task Force stationed at strategic locations in Bhutan for construction and maintenance of national highways across mountains. They keep the records on landslides however under “classified” documents. These are not available for public circulation without high level approval. The oral history on landslides is therefore the last resort in the country. Third, the subtropical zone of the eastern Himalayas comprising of eastern and southern administrative districts of the country receives the highest rainfall. The average ranges from 850 to 5500 mm of rainfall. The dry administrative districts of Mongar, Tashigang, Tongsa and Wangdiphodrang in the eastern Bhutan witness from 850 to 1200 mm of rainfall; the humid ones of Shemgang, Chirang and Pemagatshel from 1200 to 2500 mm; and, the wet ones of Samchi, Geylegphug and Samdrup Jongkhar of southern portion of the country from 2500 to 5500 mm (RGOB, 1990, p.2). Almost 75 to 90 percent of all rainfall does take place during May to September months in a year. The highest incidence and frequency of landslides naturally coincide with the period of monsoonal rainfall. The irony is that the disaggregated data on rainfall and temperature pertaining to various stations within the administrative districts are yet not sufficiently available (RGOB, 1993, p.4). The accuracy of data, wherever available, is also Mahmood Ansari 3|Page
  4. 4. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides further doubtful even in the eyes of the government functionaries themselves. The climatic variations across the traversing chain of mountains and valleys can therefore not be known. This constrains the potentiality of exercises in projection of landslides, given the acute deficiency of database on even the other related variables as well in the country. Lastly, there were lands for which the permanent heritable and transferable rights did not exist in the two regions. The private possession and control of these lands were, in other words, not backed by the traditional ownership document called ‘mathram chem’. They were all increasingly subsumed under the category of ‘reserved forest’, and acquired by the state under the first ever Forest Act of 1969. The National Forest Policy Act was subsequently passed in 1974 aimed at bringing the aspect of forest management to the front. The United Nations Development Programme assistance started the financial and technical support to the forestry sector since 1976. Next arrived the World-level conservation institution like WWF on the scene. The Master Plan for Forestry Development came to be formulated after a long gap only in 1990-91 (NES, 1992, pp.37-41; Oleson, 1985, p.21). It was tilted in favour of exploitation of forest for commercial uses under government aegis and guidance. What happened in the course of last couple of decades actually was that the several dozen sawmills, logging indiscriminately and exploiting the forest almost painlessly came up in the southern Bhutan. Along the fragile ecosystem, the extraction industry became active in mining the coal, dolomite, limestone and gypsum (NES, 1992, p.47). The disturbances to hydrological regime and river basin set aside, the forest itself has been robbed of the regeneration capacity under the umbrella of monarchical bureaucracy. The country has lost approximately 17 percent of its natural forest cover as compared to the pre-investment survey of 1956-58 and has lost approximately 35 percent of the natural forest believed to be intact a hundred years ago (NES, 1992, p.38) . And, it is yet not the constituent category of the official mind and project to seek quantitative relationship between deforestation and landslides. In short, the State has continuously been failing in arousing the awareness about, furnishing the information’s on, and chalking out the policy and planning on landslides over the course of ninety years of political rule down the line. Under the monolithic conception of state-its nation, the phenomenon of perennial landslides and the consequent problems faced by the masses is actually not at all considered a national problem. And, therefore, development of data-base on landslide, rainfall and forestry is not on the national agenda. The State too preoccupied with enticing the international donor agencies with liberal aid grants and managing the disaster potential of political dissidence going on against the Monarchy (Ansari, 1996). Aid-syndrome, Parasitism and Apathy The genesis of Information failure is only partly explained by invoking the facts of underdevelopment of society and economy in the rugged mountains of the Himalayas. Major part of explanation lays therein the aid- syndrome pervading the corridors of power. The State has vigorously pursued the distinct policy in favour of parasitic dependence upon the world community. A patient wait for the arrival of international aid donors is important constituent element of national problems has become part of the legacy. The conscious State-ist ideology Mahmood Ansari 4|Page
  5. 5. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides moves in the same direction albeit with relatively aggressive arguments. To quote a government publication: It is increasingly accepted that if development in the poorer parts of the World is to be sustainable, the World community must share some of the costs ………………….. An example is deforestation in the Himalayas which probably contributes to the flood problems in Bangladesh and India. Perhaps this implies that upstream countries (in this case literally) should be compensated for not exploiting an exploitable resource …………………. The World community is deeply concerned about the conservation of bio-diversity ………………… If conservation of the global bio-diversity is considered a common obligation for mankind, mechanisms must be found whereby the singly country …………………. is compensated appropriately (NES, 1992, p. 64). Given the nationalist ideology in favour of parasitic aid-dependence, the total official development assistance as percentage of gross national product was as high as 32.0 in 1990 (UNDP,1993; IBRD,1992). Despite this, considerable delays in the various important national activities have been observed. The Pre-investment Survey in Bhutan was undertaken with complete financial and technical assistance from India in 1958. Only after the expiry of fourteen years, the Survey of Bhutan was established in 1972. The Landsat Satellite Imagery was collected in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organization team in 1977-78. The topographical and cadastral surveys began to be focused after 1980. It moreover remained confined to the western part of the country for a long time. The SPOT Satellite Images Survey was initiated by the DANIDA (international non-government organization) sponsored team in 1990. The Landuse Planning Project undertaken by the international donors was initiated with aplomb only by 1992. It is continuing at a snail’s pace. The need to revise the aerial photography, satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques in a comprehensive manner to map the landscape of the country is being talked about now. The computerization of land records and landslides are still awaiting the suitable aid-donor. Given the insistence of aid-donor agencies and a new found craze for commercial profits by the native ruling oligarchy, emphasis has of late been directed to the themes on agro forestry and community forestry. The plants like ‘Artemisia’ get emphasis since it has the possibility of being conducive in developing a medicine against cancer2, according to the World Health Organisation. The citrus (orange) fruit plant gets heavy project funding since it earns the foreign exchange from Bangladesh through export. The community participation in community forestry is however negligible despite slogans of decentralization paid lip-service by the government under the pressure of aid obligation. Moreover, there are innumerable number of footpaths, walking trails, mule tracks, suspension and cantilever bridges connecting the villages off the national highways in the country. The Indian government took up the responsibility of construction of national highways since the 1960s. The United Nations Development Programme came forward to finance the construction of suspension bridges with assistance of 1.0 million dollars in 1984-85. Recently, the UNDP 2 This information was supplied by Dr. Paccock of United Nations Development Programme of Malaysia while delivering talk in the Khangma Technical Forum (KATEF), Khangma in east Bhutan during May, 1994. Mahmood Ansari 5|Page
  6. 6. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides aided with 2.5 million dollars for purchase of bulldozers, road rollers, stone crushers and graders. The machines have however been used mainly to repair the roads connecting to government offices and district headquarter collectorate offices in the name of utilization in the maintenance of feeder roads. It is quite often diverted to be used in the very construction of public buildings as well. The machines and the finance are never used to clear the landslides since the latter is supposedly the duty of paramilitary forces from India. A project funding solely for management of landslides is awaited by the bureaucracy and official functionaries. The parasitism is at the height. 3. Regional Development – A Case Study Given the informational failure of the State complemented with the game of waiting and delays forced upon by the very parasitic nature of dependence of the State on aid and assistance, the quantitative analysis of magnitude and pattern of the landslide with its attendant socioeconomic consequences is an extremely constrained exercise (Oleson, 1985, p.29). The national state funded research institutions suffer from the paucity of data. Flooded with one time populist slogans like Gross National Happiness (GNH in place of GNP, gross national product as a measure of national prosperity), sustainable environment management, system approach to renewable natural resource management and similar terminologies, and rhetoricians getting promotions on the bureaucratic ladder, there has been no consideration of the necessity to undertake quantitative study on the relationship between the socio-economic characteristics of a region and the landslides in the country. Who is responsible for such a state of affair, if not the State? We nonetheless utilize the disappointing limited database to highlight the agrarian backwardness of South and East Bhutan as maintained by the state agro-bureaucracy. The limited database still however presents interesting detail on further weaknesses of the state. The population of southern Bhutan was a little higher than 2 lakhs, and that of eastern Bhutan 1, 90, 000 around the beginning of 1990s. The eastern region has been comparatively sparsely populated than the southern part of the country. The density of population, at some places in the south, was as high as 450 persons per square kilometer. The average density of population per hectare of cultivable land was though as low as 4 persons in the east (RGOB, 1990). Nonetheless, the general demographic profile of two regions is alike and similar. The small acreage under commercial crops, negligible application of agricultural capital and general subsistence-oriented crop cultivation and livestock rearing are the characteristics of livelihood pattern of rural masses in both the region. The shifting cultivation, tseri, constitutes 29 percent of total registered arable land i.e. 85,000 acres in the country (RGOB, 1994, pp.1112). In the four districts of southern region alone, the tseriland was however 59 percent of total arable land in the region. A typical example is the district of Zhemgang where 90 percent of upland rice used to be grown under tseri in the beginning of 1990s (Ghimiray, 1993, pp.12-13). The government could legally ban the shifting cultivation only in 1992. With the ban, the fall out is that the poor peasants and labourers are now seen to be increasingly settling nearby roads. The migration of people toward road settlement is on increase. The encroachment on forest land is also on increase. Since the wild animals are enticed due to encroachment into forest area, the damage of harvest by wild boars has also become a perennial problem (BNN, 1993). In Mahmood Ansari 6|Page
  7. 7. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides other words, pauperized rural masses have been pushed to the marginal spaces of survival with the ban on tseri practice. With the incidence of landlessness increasing, hundreds of landless households have already been discovered in Samdrup Jongkhar and Pemagatshel (where land productivity is already very low) districts in east and south Bhutan respectively (BNN, 1993, December). The Manas and Nyara Ams in Lhuntsi and Tashigang districts are the major rivers in the east. These are partially utilized for farm irrigation. Given the malfunctioning, and virtual absence in a large number of villages, of the Wateruseer’s Association, the dominant farmers often keep on diverting the scarce water to their terraces in down slope succession. This simply results in bad land management and water logging apart from generating inequalities in crop yields across the cross-section of farms. Moreover, the ‘model farms’ established by the government with international financial aids are often situated nearby the roads. The motivation is to have easy access to water sloping down the hills, apart from the ease of supervision it affords to the project directors. The vulnerability to landslides in the microenvironment is an issue often neglected in the process by both the beneficiary farmers and agro-bureaucracy. The agricultural land requires a constant input of biomass from the forest for maintenance of farmland fertility in the regions. The forest is exploited for leaves, which mixed with animal manures prepare the fertilizers for land as well. Moreover, the forest is exploited for fuel-wood as well. The fuel-wood consumption per capita was 1.8 cubic meter per year in the country; meeting 90 per cent of the energy requirement of the country (NES, 1992, p.37). The dependence on fuel-wood is relatively more acute in the backward regions of southern and eastern Bhutan. The aggregate farm production does not satisfy the food consumption requirements in the two regions. The population is heavily dependent upon imported rice from India. The substitutable staple food crop of maize is often diverted to the manufacturing of hot liquor called ‘araa’ and a snack called ‘kharang’. Both are traditional items of gifts to the neighbors and to elite. Given such a deficit nature of production and supply, the dependence on livestock is increased. There live the pastoral communities of ‘drogpas’ in the areas of Merak and Sakteng near Tashigang district. Their pastoral community lands have been encroached by the population, and the rest declared reserved under the forest by the government. The grazing in the forest has increased as a result. The forest is a victim of many other social processes. The poor peasant depends on the forest for medicinal plants, edible plants and bamboos apart from the fuel wood. Given the altitude and land slopes, the plants and bamboos are manually dragged down the valley causing the manmade inundation of small plants and shrubs along the way with meager possibility of regeneration. The prevention of natural regeneration caused by trampling of cattle along the steep slopes is yet another facet. Moreover, the large farmer is guided by the traditional value system encouraging the keeping of large herds of livestock’s with poor attention to feed resources. The free grazing in the nearby forests is part of the extensive method of livestock rearing. The cattle are allowed to run free in the forest (NES, 1992, p.36). This is getting intensified consequent upon the insufficiency of pasture land. In such a subsistence agricultural economy, practicing a combination of terraced cultivation of crops along the slopes and extensive system of livestock rearing, the deforestation and landslideMahmood Ansari 7|Page
  8. 8. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides proof subsistence matrix is just not possible. The discrimination of the ruling oligarchy against minority inhabited Southern and Easter Bhutan has continuously been detrimental as well in intensifying the disequilibrium. There has been no attempt on the part of government to establish rural industries, electrify villages and supply alternative sources of energy to population of these neglected regions on an extensive and systematic scale. Landslide Consequences The agricultural economic underdevelopment is as well perpetuated due to the negative consequences of unchecked landslides; the chain reactions set off by the latter tends to perpetuate the same land use and livelihood pursuits resulting in further degradation of the habitats and thus giving rise to situations promoting further landslides and there by reenactment of the whole cycle. The consequences of landslides are the increasing salinity and soil erosion in the farm fields, destruction of dwellings, and interference in the mobility of man and mail services and irregularities in the supply of necessities like vegetables, salt, kerosene oil, diesel and petrol. In the most populous and the largest district of Tashigang in the east, the supply and sale of two vital food, rice and sugar, witness the trough during May to October coinciding with the period of landslides. The under-supply is compensated somehow through the local purchases within the district by the commission agent of the Food Corporation of Bhutan (Table - 8). Table – 8 Amount of Commodity Sales: FCB Commission Agent’s Shop at Tashigang (Bhutan), 1993 (in quintals) Calendar Months Amount of Commodities Sold (in quintals) Rice January 362.86 February 278.99 March 152.19 April 154.34 May 113.01 June 135.74 July 130.52 August 167.23 September 234.51 October 242.63 November 132.08 December 203.63 Source: FCB Commission Agent’s Stock Register, Tashigang Mahmood Ansari Sugar 194.64 172.88 250.54 186.15 194.27 219.32 114.56 41.56 91.56 48.05 109.16 131.80 8|Page
  9. 9. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides Moreover, the small peasants in the eastern Bhutan start bringing the chilies and potatoes produces nearby roads immediately after the harvest, and sell at a very low price. The transportation cost and probability of damage to these perishable commodities increase with the frequency of landslides. The largest arrival of these commodities at the auction yards at Samdrup Jongkhar and Phuentsholing at the Indian border are found to be during May- June every year. The school and college teachers start hoarding these goods from March- April itself. The survival has therefore its own matrix. Conclusion The subtropical agro ecological and geological regions in and above the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas in the sovereign Buddhist state of Bhutan may not probably escape the heavy showers of long-enduring high-intensity monsoon rainfall on a still evolving and unstable topographical landscape. It therefore may not escape the natural inundation of forest, erosion of soil and meandering of streams and water-basins of lakes and rivers. The disequilibrium, manifested time and again in the forms of natural calamity, is to some reasonable extent an integral component of the dynamic nature. The State embedded in the domain of centralized bureaucracy and oligarchy of power elite could however have aroused awareness, furnished information and encouraged community participation in the event of landslides. It could have given the latter the status of a national problem. It could have done away with the parasitic dependence on India and the World community. It could have sought the goal of self- reliance with respect to not-so-gigantic day-to day events of landslides, to say the least. In short, the State could become a responsible, welfare and development oriented organ of the civil society. It has on the contrary failed in transforming the subsistence agricultural economy of poor, alienated and stratified peasantry. It has failed in reducing the discrimination against the southern and eastern regions, and in the plan to narrow down the unevenness of economic development in the country. It has shown soft policies on deforestation caused by fuel wood energy demand, free over-grazing by cattle and creation of underground mining structures near fragile ecosystem. It has failed to participate in infrastructural growth and construction of road networks on less hazard-prone lines innovated on in other parts of the world. Despite rhetoric’s, it could not bring the sustainable economic development with real commitment on the forefront. In retrospect, it seems that the State, constrained by the nature and form of politico-economic governance; failed miserably in transforming nature to be subservient to humans. The humans caught in the vicious circle of biological and social reproduction ethos of economic underdevelopment have evolved survival strategies detrimental to nature. Mahmood Ansari 9|Page
  10. 10. The State and Phenomenon of Landslides References Ansari, Mahmood (1996), “Fire Breathing Dragon”, Telegraph (Indian Newspaper), 27 February. Ghimiray, Mahesh (1993), “Upland September/October Rice in Zhemgang”, Agriculture Newsletter, no. 36, Hasrat, Bikramajit (1980), History of Bhutan-Land of Peaceful Dragon, Education Department, Thimpu International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) (1992), World Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York. National Environment Secretariat (NES) (1992), Bhutan: Towards Sustainable Development in a Unique Environment, Planning Commission of Bhutan, Thimpu Oleson, Gunnar (1985) (Ed), The Case of Bhutan: Development in a Himalayan Kingdom, DVNA, Denmark Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) (1985), Statistical Handbook of Bhutan, Statistical Division of Planning Commission, Thimpu Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) (1990), “Agriculture Newsletter”, No-19, July/August Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) (1990), “Agronomic Survey – 1989-90”, Central Statistical Organisation/ Planning Commission, Thimpu Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) (1993), “Features”, Landuse Planning Project News, vol. 1, no. 3 Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) (1994), “Features”, Landuse Planning Project News, vol. 2, no. 2, April Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMAB) (1992), Annual Report – 1991/92, Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan, Thimpu United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (1993), Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York Mahmood Ansari 10 | P a g e