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The world has seen much bigger landslides than the one at Umling in Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya on October 5. The most recent one took place at Oso in the Washington state of USA on March 22 this year. The mud covered an area of 2.6 square kilometers. An entire village was buried and nearly 50 lives were lost, despite sophisticated disaster preparedness mechanism in that country. The hill was stated to be “unstable”, not affected by extreme human activities which too triggered a few worst landslides in 20th century. However, the volume of the US landslide is insignificant compared to some of the biggest landslides in history. In Vanezuela, 30,000 people were killed in a landslide triggered by heavy rains in 1999 and another, although triggered by volcanic eruption, claimed 23,000 in neighbouring Columbia in 1985. The Uttarakhand disaster on June 16 last year claimed nearly 6,000 lives. Even at Guwahati in neighbouring Assam, around 50 lives were lost during a similar disaster a few years ago. Yet in Meghalaya, the landslide at Umling is termed as one of the biggest wherein at least one person died and several vehicles were damaged.

The landslide at Umling was apparently triggered by careless manner of hill cutting for expansion of the NH-40 between Jorabat and Umiam. But, in view of the fact that there was no heavy rain during that period, there can be other reasons too. Tremor – artificial or geological – is a possibility. Some of the landslide catastrophes in history were caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Accumulated water from underground sources in that portion of the hill can be another reason. But it is for the experts to find out the reason. There is no word so far from the government about instituting a probe (other than police inquiry) into the cause of the incident. The soil and water conservation department says it is matter of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which is looking after the four-lane project. Chief minister Mukul Sangma almost concluded that the landslide was due to the steep cutting of the hills and asked the NHAI to go for appropriate “bench-cutting”.

There is no doubt that the freshly-cut hills along NH-40 look very steep in some areas. But the hue and cry over this incident was such that as if ‘landslide’ is an unfamiliar term for commuters of Shillong-Guwahati road. Scores of people met earthly grave a few years ago when a landmass slipped on NH-44 at Sonapur in Jaintia Hills took along a passenger bus passing along the stretch at that time. There was no road construction then! The actual reason behind the landslide at Umling should be probed by a competent authority, rather than jumping into conclusions and blaming anybody for that matter.

(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on October 11, 2014)

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