The nightmare of a landslide that buried an entire village and the dread of watching a mammoth boulder on an unstable slope, fearing every day that it will roll down and kill them all.
That’s how it is for thousands of people in Maharashtra’s Raigad area, even two months after 84 people were killed when the hillside around Irshalwadi village literally crumbled on the July 19 night of incessant, heavy rain. The trauma lives on – for those in Irshalwadi who escaped and live in makeshift container homes just down the road and for those in other villages around. Climate change, say experts and long-time residents, has come to their doorstep with extreme weather events that have led to hillsides getting increasingly fragile and maybe dangerous.
According to Prakash Gajbhiye, director, Geological Survey of India (GSI), Pune, rainfall has almost remained the same but the span has reduced and intensity of precipitation increased. “When there are high (heavy) rains in a shorter span, saturation of soil and rocks leads to sudden landslides. This is exacerbated by manmade activities like deforestation, slope cutting for construction of roads, houses and agricultural fields and changing natural drainage that results in deformation of slope forming material and this triggers landslides,” he explained.
As experts analyse broad trends, the villagers of the hill district of Raigad cope with their uncertain today and unknown tomorrow, wondering of and when when they will have to move.
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On the face of it, Manisha Yashwant Dore’s temporary home in a container close to the Irshadgad fort is better equipped — there are two fans, decent flooring, cooking gas and tap water. Dore, who lost seven members of her family, including her 18-year-old daughter, survived the massive landslide on July 19. And realises that nothing can ever replace their lives in the hill village of Irshalwadi.
“Although it was an arduous climb of an hour from the approach road to Irshalwadi, life was good when we lived up there. We did not need fans, we drew water from our well and we ate vegetables we grew and also the ones we got from the forest,” she said.
Dore’s voice trailed off and her eyes welled up with tears. The memory of her daughter Kanchan crying for help comes back to haunt her. Her brother who had come as a guest that night, her mother-in-law, step mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law also died. Recounting what had happened, the 35-year-old said there was first one landslide that buried some homes, including the house where her daughter Kanchan was sleeping.
“We rushed to help and started digging in a bid to rescue her. In minutes, there was another landslide and mounds of earth swallowed the entire hamlet,” added her husband Yashwant.
The couple, part of the Thakar tribe, was also buried under the debris but were rescued. The July 19 landslide sealed the fate of the men and women of Irshalwadi. Questions loom large for many thousands living in the tribal area – should they stay on in their villages, home for many generations, or is a move to safer areas inevitable.
There is an increasing feeling that they might just have to leave their homes to move to safety.
On a nearby hill is the tribal hamlet of Changewadi, just below the Sondaigad hill. During the monsoons, the hill is pockmarked with scores of small waterfalls. It makes for great pictures. But villagers fear that the ground beneath a massive boulder, some 25-30 feet in height and 40-50 feet in width, is being eroded. And the boulder might come crashing down.
They have demanded that the boulder be removed. “We are the people of the forest. My great grandfather, grandfather, my father, myself and my children have lived here. We don’t want to go anywhere else if the rock is removed… we don’t want to be buried like Irshalwadi,” said Pandu Baku Khadke as he climbed the huge boulder with the dexterity of an ibex. People in Changewadi are part of the Thakar tribe and work as daily wage labourers at hill station Matheran, or nearby Karjat and Khalapur towns. Echoing the sentiments of many villagers in the area, 28-year-old Khadke said he does not want to leave but wondered if they had any choice in the matter.
The story is repeated in village after village.
In Tadwadi, another tribal hamlet close by, land adjoining a hillock has sunk at many places leading to the creation of cracks. In Beedkhurd, villagers last month passed a resolution urging the government to shift them to safer places. Irsahalwadi is not the only hamlet to be buried.
In 2021, Tailye village in Raigad, 87 people were killed in a landslide.
According to the Raigad district collectorate, nearly 350 lives have been lost due to extreme weather events from 2005 to 2021.
Vivek Gaikwad, deputy collector (revenue) Konkan division, which covers all seven coastal districts of Maharashtra, said 109 landslide prone villages have been surveyed. Of these, nine have been categorised as “most vulnerable” and 11 as “moderately vulnerable”.
The Geological Survey of India, he said, has suggested that six villages in Raigad be permanently shifted. These are Ambe Shivthar, Wakan Dhamnichiwadi, Kudpan, Chandke, Kamthe and Kamthe Fauzdarwadi.
Ulka Mahajan, a social activist who has been working with tribals in the region over the last three decades, differed with the government’s figures and said there are more villages that need rehabilitation.
Mahajan said villagers in the district, which has 12 per cent Thakar and Katkari tribals, largely depend on forest produce.
“There are many tribal hamlets in the landslide-prone areas and they need to be rehabilitated. But while doing so, proximity to the forest should be the main focus. It cannot be done in isolation as their lives are linked to forests,” he said.
C S Rajput, additional block development officer of Khalapur taluka in Raigad, was among the first from the government to reach Irshalwadi. He said rainfall, particularly in July, has become very intense for the last seven-eight years.
According to the rainfall data obtained from the state government, July witnessed the heaviest precipitation from 2000 to 2022. In 2017, Raigad recorded 11 heavy rainfall events, followed by 27 in 2019, seven in 2020, 11 in 2021 and 14 in 2022. M Rajeevan, former secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences and scientist who has studied the monsoons for more three-and-half decades, links the extreme weather event on the west coast to the warming of the Arabian Sea.
The problems get compounded when they are aided by manmade activities, he said.
The Deccan plateau is made up of basalt rock. Explaining the geological factor behind more landslides in Raigad district, he added that lava flows which resulted in formation of the rocks in Raigad are different and support more weathering and formation of overburden soil which makes it more prone to landslides than other areas. While experts analyse the phenomenon of climate change, the villagers of Raigad live through the devastating consequences of it.