Joshimath Sinking a Disaster Foretold
O P Bhuraita
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JOSHIMATH'S sinking recently was a disaster waiting to happen. Although cracks started appearing in buildings in late 2021, they have widened alarmingly, and new cracks appeared in more than 800 houses and roads a year later. According to images released by the National Remote Sensing Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation, Joshimath has witnessed a rapid subsidence of nearly 5.4 cm in 12 days—between December 27, 2022, and January 7, 2023. The ISRO report also stated that a subsidence of nearly 9 cm was recorded in April-November 2022. ISRO has removed this report from its website after a government directive barred them from making any public pronouncements.
Joshimath is a town with a population of 20,000 in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. There are reports that the puncturing of an aquifer below the town due to the construction of an NTPC tunnel nearby may have been an immediate cause for the current subsidence, but the problem of Joshimath sinking has been years, if not decades, in the making. It is not a natural disaster, but a manufactured environmental one. Its sinking has been triggered by the hydropower projects, the large-scale building of hotels, and road-building projects, ignoring the load-bearing capacity of the region and the views of geologists and environmental experts. Scientists and experts have been raising the alarm for decades. The Mishra Commission, as far back as 1976, had pointed out that Joshimath is a fragile site located in an ancient landslide zone and suggested a ban on heavy construction. The commission had also recommended some remedial measures, including afforestation and developing a proper drainage system. However, these suggestions went against the politician-contractors' vested interests, so the report was buried.
Though Joshimath is 1,000 years old, it is established on deposits of sand and stone—an old landslide zone—not a stable ground for large-scale human settlement. Its base is fragile and sensitive to any heavy construction. Still, in a most eco-friendly manner, Himalayan society has lived and flourished here. Unfortunately, the rapacious nature of capitalism, and the development policies/strategies of the present government towards the ecologically fragile and sensitive Himalayan region, have steered this destruction. It is neither a natural disaster nor an act of god, but the consequence of crony capitalism that has led to this disaster.
Joshimath is highly vulnerable to tectonic activities as it lies on a fault line. A geological fault line passes close by, almost touching Joshimath. In addition, the Main Central Thrust (MCT) also passes relatively close to the city. It is a geological fault where the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate collide, creating the lofty mountain ranges of the Himalayas. Compared to other mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas are relatively young and subject to more geological activity.
Joshimath has recently seen an explosion in the construction of hydropower projects, tunnels, and roads in the last few decades, ignoring all scientific opinions. Anthropogenic, surface-level activities have disrupted natural drainage systems and punctured aquifers. This has also caused rapid soil erosion. Furthermore, there is no proper drainage system in this town and its surroundings.
The Alaknanda River and Bhagirathi are the two main source streams for the Ganga. Joshimath is situated near the Alaknanda valley. The two devastating floods in the Alaknanda valley are the 1894 flood and 1970 one. The 1894 flood was the consequence of a major landslide. In contrast, the devastating flood in 1970 was directly linked to the indiscriminate cutting of forests and paved the way for the famous Chipko Movement to protect trees.
On February 7, 2021, there was a severe flood in Dhauliganga, which meets Alaknanda near Joshimath. It caused heavy damage to the under-construction run of the river Tapovan hydropower project of NTPC. More than 200 people were victims of this disaster. Its tunnel was flooded, and Raini village, the land of the world-famous Chipko movement, also suffered heavy losses. Cracks have appeared in the houses and fields, and this village has been waiting for relocation to a safer place for the last two years. The reason for this flood has not been studied, nor was there an independent scientific assessment of this flood or the damage caused to the ecosystem.
The project's work was started again, probably due to which Joshimath is suffering today. Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) report in September 2022 underlined that the floods of June 2013 and February 2021 have adversely impacted this area, and heavy rains in October 2021 were fresh triggers to land subsidence.
RASH OF CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS
The current rash of construction projects, expedited and pushed through under the present government, has taken such destruction to new and dangerous levels. A massive number of hydropower projects are now under construction in the region. Currently, there are around 100 dams in the state, with many more under construction. According to some estimates, over 450 hydroelectric projects are planned, meaning there could be one project every few dozen kilometres. Several of these are supposed to be run-of-the-river projects, but, in practice, they still involve at least some impounding of water, construction of tunnels, and construction activities.
Furthermore, the construction of these dams and hydel projects involves tree-felling with lackadaisical compensatory afforestation. Massive construction activities, blasting using dynamite, and other questionable techniques activate further instability in the already unstable hill regions. In addition, construction debris is often dumped into the river in violation of procedures and protocols. This debris further blocks the river flow and raises the river bed, thus increasing the potential for flooding.
Over the years, these projects have led to large-scale protests by villagers, environmentalists, and experts. In the wake of the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, a supreme court-appointed expert committee recommended the cancellation of most of the proposed projects, which a second committee appointed also endorsed. A third hand-picked committee formed after that overturned these recommendations, but many projects thus approved continue to be under dispute. The Chopra Committee, appointed by the supreme court, had opined that no dam or hydel project should be taken up in the para-glacial zone—between 2,200 to 2,500 metres above the sea level—on safety grounds.
Thousands of big, medium and large dams are planned to harness more than one lakh MW hydroelectricity in Himalayan river basin projects, of which half will be from the Brahmaputra and the rest from the Indus and Ganga River basins. Himachal Pradesh in the Western Himalayas has the country's highest installed hydropower capacity of over 10,500 MW. The government is planning to double this capacity.
Massive road construction is also underway, notably under the Rs 12,000 crore Char Dham Project started in 2016, linking the four major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand, including hotels and other infrastructure. The environmental clearance procedure was bypassed by dividing this project into smaller projects. The 889-kilometre-long so-called all-weather road project (Char Dham highway project) was divided into 53 projects under 100 km in length and given clearance without any environmental appraisal.
With the rationale of boosting tourism in the region, regardless of the carrying capacity and fragility of the mountain ecosystem, Kedarnath town, which suffered extensive damage in 2013, is being rebuilt with little thought to the impact on the surrounding environment and the vulnerability of the fragile ecology. Alternative suggestions have been brushed aside, such as building residential infrastructure at lower altitudes with regulated pilgrim traffic to the temple. Monitoring and observation of this region for extreme weather events, landslides and slope instability, and glacial observation, is also almost non-existent.
GAGGING THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY AND BULLDOZING PUBLIC OUTRAGE
Several state-run institutions, including ISRO, have been directed by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Uttarakhand government not to interact with the media or share information on social media on the Joshimath situation without prior approval. This gagging of the scientific community from sharing facts and findings is not the first instance during the present government regime. It had also happened during a pandemic when the central government directed all the institutions to stop sharing information with the public without prior approval, thus allowing the spread of rumours and unscientific information widely.
The local people here have been protesting for the last one and a half years and are constantly warning the local administration that these projects will cause devastation in this area. In 2021 a writ petition by the residents and activists of the area in the Uttarakhand High Court was filed against the union environment ministry. It called for a prohibition on blasting, stone crushing, and mining activities in the Dhauli Ganga-Rishi Ganga sub-basin near Joshimath and revoking the environment and forest clearances granted to 105 MW Rishi Ganga and 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower projects. But in a surprising decision, the high court brushed aside the petition and, instead, passed an order mentioning that the petition was highly motivated and at the behest of an unknown person or entity, merely using the petitioners as a front.
Did we learn any lesson in light of the tragedies of 2013, 2021, and 2023 disasters in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand? This is the critical question; the answer will determine the future course of action for protecting the fragile human ecology of this region. First, it is essential to have a safety and environmental review of projects on an urgent basis involving independent researchers and experts. Second, the review should be based on internationally accepted standards and protocols for similar terrain. Third, strict adherence to the environmental laws and protocols while conceiving, constructing, and developing any major development project, including hydropower projects, road and railway infrastructure construction.
Joshimath is a warning; it is a sign of potential catastrophe, not only for the people living in the fragile and ecologically sensitive Himalayas but also a forewarning for those living in the floodplains of the Himalayan river system. Finally, it is an alert to reverse this mindless, unscientific, undemocratic growth-centric hazardous and environmentally damaging infrastructure projects in fragile and ecologically sensitive areas.
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