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Uttarakhand’s sinking mountain town is a consequence of Himalayan blunders that India must learn from well enough so as never to repeat

Sunjoy Hans

While a cold wave has been sweeping through many parts of north India after the onset of the new year, the winter has turned out to be more gloomy than chilly for the residents of Uttarakhand’s Joshimath. A pall of doom and despair has descended over the scenic mountain town – a well-known way station for Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib pilgrims, tourists headed for Auli and the Valley of Flowers as well as for trekkers and mountain climbers – nestled at an altitude of 1890 metres above sea level in the breathtakingly majestic Garhwal Himalayas. Just as palpable at present in the relatively rarefied air of Joshimath is a sense of absolute urgency.

The holy town, after all, is sinking.

Joshimath may be many things to many people – but to its 25,000-plus residents, it is where their home is. And to many of them, it is their whole world. When they saw those unusually big cracks suddenly surfacing in their houses and on their streets earlier this month, they felt the ground slip beneath their feet. And that is what is literally happening – a geological phenomenon called land subsidence, which effectively means the slope on which Joshimath sits is gradually sinking due to the shifting of the soil underneath the town.

As panic struck the town and locals took to the streets on January 5 with a torchlight protest march against new construction under way in the area, government authorities and the ruling party promptly – and rightfully swung into action. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami called a high-level meeting to address the issue and Disaster Management secretary Ranjit Sinha visited the city on the same day, along with a team of experts and scientists, to review the situation. The team studied all aspects of the subsidence, engaged with locals and conducted a house-to-house survey of the impacted areas. The government set up other teams as well to assess the buildings, hotels and other structures in the affected localities. The Uttarakhand BJP unit also formed a 14-member committee to assess the damage caused.

When it was found that way too many houses – around 700 – were on the verge of collapse while a temple had crumbled on January 6, the overarching conclusion was this: mass evacuation and rehabilitation must be done if Joshimath was to be prevented from becoming an unmitigated disaster. Emphasizing on the importance of dedicating every minute to mitigation measures, Uttarakhand Chief Secretary S.S. Sandhu directed immediate evacuation of people from the affected zones. As many people left their homes on their own out of sheer fear of a natural calamity, the administration deployed National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force to help shift the rest to safer spots such as municipal buildings, gurudwaras and schools. By January 10, more than 600 houses had been evacuated and some 4,000-plus people shifted to lower-risk areas, including rented houses for which each family was assured a sum of Rs 4000 per month in assistance from the government for the next six months.

Yet the situation was far from being as simple and straightforward as its reportage.

Some of the evacuated residents have gone through immense emotional trauma after being forced by fate to leave behind their hearths and homes in the sinking parts of the town. Many amongst them had spent their whole lives’ savings to build their homes and are finding it incredibly hard to let go, while there were others who have already been shifted but keep returning to their ill-fated dwellings and neighbourhoods despite their families trying to stop them from revisiting what have now officially become death traps in no-go areas. And then there are a good few who are seeking fair compensation for their rehabilitation as well as for permission to demolish their damaged houses before moving out.

But most of them are not cursing their fate as much as they are blaming human factors and government inaction for their present predicament. Many among them express firm belief that the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project, involving the construction of an underground tunnel under Joshimath, has caused the current situation in the town. Others point to the ongoing construction of the Helang-Marwari 4-lane bypass by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), about 13km away from Joshimath, as another potential reason.

Although both NTPC and BRO issued statements denying the possibility of their projects having anything to do with the subsidence in Joshimath, the Uttarakhand government did not change its decision to halt all construction works in the area – including theirs – and rightfully so. The government’s move was in keeping with local sentiments, given that Joshimath residents strongly agreed on at least one broad point: heavy construction activities in and around their town led to the alarming circumstances they were facing now.

Besides, equally importantly, there is a consensus among experts that the precarious situation of Joshimath was primarily due to rampant infrastructure development in a fragile ecosystem.

Noting that Joshimath was a stark reflection of the manner in which local authorities are irreversibly damaging the environment, Anjal Prakash – Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and Lead Author for IPCC reports – said the town was also a grave example of climate change turning into reality.

He pointed out that unplanned and uncontrolled infrastructure development along with an unprecedented manifestation of climate change in the hill states together made for Joshimath-like tragedies and emergencies. “For example, 2021 and 2022 have been years of disaster for Uttarakhand. There have been numerous climate risk events recorded like high rainfall events triggering landslides,” Prakash recalled.

“We have to first understand that these areas are very fragile and small changes or disturbances in the ecosystem will lead to grave disasters … In fact, this is a particular point in history which should be remembered as what should be done in the Himalayan region.”

However, Prakash’s point and perspective are nothing new. Nor is Joshimath’s history with subsidence and cracked walls.

Around half a century ago, as early as 1971, some buildings in the mountain town had developed cracks big enough to cause concern. The Centre had set up an 18-member committee under the chairmanship of Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra to study and investigate the cause of those cracks. The 1976 Mishra Committee Report had clearly mentioned that Joshimath was situated on an ancient landslide zone and could sink if development continued unchecked. It had also noted that although Alaknanda and Dhauli Ganga rivers were playing a role, increased construction activity and rising population in the area were also contributing to the rising number of landslides there.

“Joshimath is a deposit of sand and stone — it is not the main rock — hence it was not suitable for a township. Vibrations produced by blasting, heavy traffic, etc., will lead to a disequilibrium in natural factors…” the report had stated.

It was also mentioned in the report that an absence or shortage of proper drainage facilities also contributed to landslides, as soak pits, which allow water to slowly soak into the ground, create cavities between the soil and the boulders and lead to water seepage and soil erosion.

Categorically stating that an imposition of strict restrictions on heavy construction was crucial to preventing or minimising the possibility of Joshimath’s situation getting worse in the future, the report had painstakingly detailed all measures necessary to comprehensively tackle the problem – starting from the way the cracks on the slopes must be sealed, to how boulders should not be removed by digging or blasting the hill side for road repair or other construction work, to why trees should not be cut in the landslide zone and extensive plantation – but not agriculture – be done there instead in order to conserve soil and water resources.

Local environmental activists, such as Atul Satti, have been fuming because neither were these instructions followed, nor were their voices against hydropower projects and the construction of tunnels in the area ever paid any attention to. “Our voices were blatantly ignored and our worst nightmare has come true today. The entire responsibility of Joshimath caving in is on NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project. Continuous blasting in the tunnels have shaken the foundation of our town. We demand instant action from the government that must include immediate stalling of NTPC project, closure of Chardham all-weather road (Haleng-Marwari Bypass), implementation of NTPC’s pact that insures houses, setting a committee for rehabilitation of Joshimath within a set timeframe,” Satti said.

Their anger also stems from the notion that successive governments over the past five decades have not bothered to ensure the implementation of the mitigating and preventive measures suggested in the 1976 Mishra Committee Report and a few other reports submitted to the government during the period.

Y.P. Sundriyal, Head of Department of Geology, HNB Garhwal University, expressed agreement with the notion as he attributed the ongoing crisis in Joshimath primarily to anthropogenic (human-caused) activities. He particularly pointed to the manifold increase in local population and tourist landfall, and also explained how the construction of tunnels for hydropower projects through the blasting method was causing local earthquake tremors and shaking debris above the rocks, leading to the cracks.

Offering a scientific explanation to support the perception about Joshimath caving crisis being precipitated by the hydropower project, Research Director Prakash said the water gushing out from the walls and roads in the town is from a fractured zone punctured by the tunnel that NTPC built.

“This is also in the pretext of several reports in the past. I would quote two reports of IPCC, published in 2019 and 2022, that have critically observed that this region is very prone to disasters. This means a very strong planning process must follow.”

“In fact, the entire planning should be done at the bio-regional scale that should include what is allowed and what is not and has to be very stringent. I am not against bringing infrastructural development for people as these are the places of tourist interest. I understand the fact that people in these places here have no other means of survival considering the religious place they are in.”

“However, it has to be done in a planned manner. We must leave out some things and look out for other ways for energy generation. The return investment cost in hydropower projects is very less when compared to the cost associated with environmental and ecological damage. Joshimath is a clear example of what one should not do in the Himalayas,” Prakash added.

A 2006 report, titled ‘Joshimath localised subsidence and active erosion of the AT Nala’ had even measured the degree of damage happening to the town every year. The report had revealed that some parts of town were sliding by 1cm every year.

Although the NTPC has been persistently trying to deny any connection between its project and Joshimath’s troubles, its own official record does little to support its claims. Its tunnel boring machine has a long history of breaching the aquifers (breaking into the body of rock that keeps groundwater) during the execution of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydel project.

To its credit, though, the Uttarakhand government seems to be pulling out all the stops to resolve the Joshimath problem. Chief Minister Dhami on January 11 visited Joshimath to review relief and rescue operations, and he stayed overnight at a camp. Apart from halting all construction projects and activities in the area indefinitely, his government had already ordered all unstable structures to be demolished in Joshimath as soon as possible.

Its another matter that the demolition drive has been facing stiff opposition from the affected residents. The compensation of Rs 1.5 lakh that it had announced for affected families was refused by the locals. Owners of hotels and other businesses are also demanding a fair economic evaluation of their buildings as they decry the absence of advance notice from the administration pertaining to its demolition plans.

It was never going to be easy, but much of it could have been avoided had right steps been taken by successive governments at the right time. In some ways it is too late to salvage so much of what could have been saved in Joshimath. But it is never too late to learn the lesson from Joshimath and use it elsewhere so that the same mistakes do not get repeated.

As India First went to press, news reports came in about cracks appearing in several houses in Karnaprayag of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district landed. Facing panicking locals, Karnaprayag Municipality has sought help from Chief Minister Dhami. A team of district administration is inspecting the affected areas in the town, as a report from an IIT Roorkee team that had twice surveyed this areas is awaited.

It looks like a case of history repeating itself in quick succession.

Other places like Nainital, Uttarkashi and Champawat are also currently dealing with the problem of rampant overdevelopment and overtourism. Unless corrective measures are taken soon enough, it is just a matter of time before the people there face the same fate as the residents of Joshimath.

The current governments, both at the state and central level, should take this current challenge as an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past ones. Because history will judge them on how comprehensively and promptly they can defuse these decades-old environmental timebombs. For starters, though, they must make no mistake about one thing: Prevention is any day better than cure.

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