A team of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) workers have been scrambling to find 22-year-old Kalaiarasan, a native of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, under the rubble following a landslip on Tuesday evening at Munnar Gap Road, a prime scenic tourist spot in Kerala’s Idukki district. In fact, it was only on Wednesday that the team managed to pull out another victim, 19-year-old Udayan (from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu), from the debris when another massive landslip took place on Friday, in the same area.
While no casualties were reported in the Friday’s incident, this is not the first time that the Gap Road stretch of the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway in Munnar witnessed these landslips, where a mass of rocks crumbles and slides down.
On July 28 this year, a major landslip occurred in Killavipara area of the Gap Road, which damaged roadside shops and vehicles parked in the area. Traffic was suspended in the area for over a month and reopened only on September 7. The heavy rains in 2018, too, had triggered landslips in the area. The common link between these serial landslides in this particular area is the road-widening work that started in 2017.
The road-widening work on the 38 kilometre stretch of Munnar-Bodymettu started in August 2017. The project is estimated to be worth Rs 268.2 crore. Currently, only 53% of the work has been completed. Kochi-Dhanuskodi route is considered the main stretch to reach Munnar from neighbouring regions like Ernakulam and Thekkady.
Kalaiarasan and Udayan — who were buried under the landslips — were part of the team operating earthmovers and lorries, removing rocks from the road ‘poramboke’ (unassessed lands that belong to the government) in the Gap Road area. In the landslip on Tuesday, Subair (35) and Palraj of Bathalagund, Tamil Nadu, too, were seriously injured.
According to the Revenue Department officials, the widening of the road is being carried out in an unscientific manner. In fact, former Devikulam sub-collector and IAS officer, Renuraj, had pointed this out earlier and even warned about landslips.
On August 1, Renuraj had submitted a report to the Revenue Principal Secretary on the condition of Gap Road. The report pointed out that the soil sensitivity of the land was not factored in while widening the road. It also warned about the chances of landslips in the area. The Kerala government, however, ignored the report, sources in the Revenue Department told TNM.
In her report, Renuraj had pointed out, “The contractor company illegally removed more rocks from the road poramboke in the Gap Road area. As part of the road widening works, the earthmoving was done without constructing retaining walls on the slopes on the side of the road, which posed a threat and could lead to more landslips.”
The report recommended that the road widening works in the region should be carried out only after conducting a detailed study by an expert agency.
Between July 28 and October 7 this year, the area saw about 14 landslips. The landslip on Tuesday was triggered by blasting of rocks as part of the road widening work.
"The Gap road area is under serious threat. It is neither practical nor safe to continue traffic movement in the route without putting certain precautionary measures in place,” said a revenue department official.