Road to Mana

Landslides and avalanches are part of life for ITBP forces posted on the border in Uttarakhand

Dilip Kumar Mekala

Rishikesh/Joshimath/Mana: On July 20, at around 12.30 pm, this correspondent was stuck in an unusual situation. Few kilometers away from the planned destination of Mana (the last Indian village) in Uttarakhand, the road was cut off. At first sight, the scene was rather alarming. There was a massive chunk of snow that was washed down from the mountain and it brought rocks and sand along with it, completely blocking the road. Since it was in the afternoon and the temperature was shooting up to 18 degrees Centigrade, the residual snow in the mountains was fast melting, and as such water gushing down was hindering the efforts of a few good men trying to clear up the road. As the temperature soared, the situation threatened to worsen.

Landslides and avalanches are part of life for ITBP forces posted on the border in Uttarakhand

“This is an avalanche prone area in winters, and vulnerable to landslides in summer months”, said one person involved in the road clearing work. “This could take all day. I suggest you be prepared to go back, just in case”, he added. Going back was certainly not an option for this journalist who travelled for two days from Delhi to reach that point, only to get stuck just a couple of kilometres away from Mana. One option was to leave the vehicle behind and simply cross the landslide area on foot to reach the destination. But the strong flow of water didn’t make it possible for anyone to cross.

By 2 pm, the efforts to clear the road picked up pace. Two bulldozers from General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) were hard at work. GREF, which comes under the ministry of surface and transport, is an execution force of Border Roads Organisation (BRO) that is constantly working to repair roads in the rocky hills of Uttarakhand. The challenges for those engineering service officers in GREF (and BRO) are enormous as they have to deal with landslides on a daily basis. The GREF has a team of civil, electrical and mechanical engineers.

The crowds started to gather on both sides of the road-block, impatiently waiting for the road to get cleared. For the GREF engineers, the spot was very challenging. As much as they tried to clear the massive rocks, the water flow kept pushing more land and rocks on to the road. Even after hours of hard work, the road was as messy and distorted as it was before – clearly unfit for anybody to cross.

Fortunately, travelling with Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) had its perks. The ITBP team that was accompanying this correspondent had already informed the company post at Mana about the situation. By afternoon, the Mana post had sent their troops to the location – on the other side of the road block. The experienced ITBP troops assisted, first to get the luggage and then this correspondent to the other side. But only after some innovations. As it was still risky for any person to cross that area, the only option was to take the help of the bulldozers working hard to clear the road. The ITBP commanders spoke to one of the GREF engineers, and convinced him to station the heavy bulldozer against the flow of the water. Using the bulldozer as a bridge, this correspondent managed to cross the dangerous area, and the ITBP forces assisted him safely through the rest of the landslide.

“I think you got a sense of what we go through every day”, asked an ITBP inspector. Incidents like these were very common for ITBP and the GREF officials; especially during the monsoon, they became a part of their daily routine. The troops usually travel early in the morning to avoid landslides. A safe time would be from 5 am in the morning to 11 am. As the temperature starts to rise during the day, the melting snow increases the flow of water, and therefore, landslides become common.

Throughout the route from Rishikesh to Joshimath and all the way till Mana, there were visible signs of the 2013 flood. The roads had been heavily damaged in that calamity where ITBP troops had to resort to ropeways to rescue stranded people. The 2013 floods had devastating effects on the Kedarnath side as well as on the route to Mana (and Badrinath).

Currently, ITBP sends two of its battalions to the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) to address issues of natural and man-made disasters. NDRF has a current strength of 10 battalions – with troops from various central armed police forces like Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), BSF, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and of course, ITBP. Now that the government is planning to raise the NDRF as a separate entity, the ITBP will have to maintain the skills of the disaster relief forces since they are posted in flood prone areas.

Ironically, this is the only route – despite its bad shape – that connects to one of the highest motorable roads in the world. Mana Pass stands at around 18,400 feet above sea level. NH-58 connects Delhi with Badrinath and Mana, and beyond that the graded road is subject to landslides. Very few motorcycle riders can be seen on the road.

The areas beyond Mana village are not accessible to the general public because it comes under the militarised border area. Only ITBP and army personnel have frequent movements there. However, if motorcycle adventurers or other travellers plan to go till Mana Pass, they will have to get permissions from the district magistrate. Even in those cases, it is not advisable to take that route.

Unlike some parts of Ladakh, the border areas in Uttarakhand have no local residents. The harsh climate is often seen as a major obstacle. Even in areas like Mana village, which is at an altitude of 10,500 feet, the villagers move to the plains during winter months and return only when the snow is cleared. The areas in the Uttarakhand hills are highly prone to avalanches as well which is also another worry for the people living there.

At Mana village, this correspondent spent an evening with ITBP troops, and proceeded to the high altitude posts to get a sense of the daily struggles of the force. But even at Mana post, there were visible signs of destruction caused by avalanches during winter. Not very far from the post, on the other side of the river, was an avalanche prone site. Even though it was quite far from the ITBP post, the effect during the avalanche could potentially blow the entire post away. The lamp posts, railing etc., were completely twisted due to the strong winds which blow during avalanches.

Were there any areas in the valley that had less threat from avalanches? “Very few”, said one ITBP officer. The current ITBP posts are positioned in areas that are flat lands, far away from the mountains and avalanche prone sites. Even though that is not a foolproof solution, they manage to escape the ill effects of nature’s fury in the winter. In any case, the posts of ITBP are completely covered with snow, and the troops are on foot during their surveillance operations. The troops must be extremely careful not to step in to avalanche prone areas.

Life is indeed tough here in the higher reaches of the Himalayas.