January 15, 2023

The Man-made Disaster in Joshimath

IT appears that nothing short of a total disaster will convince authorities, especially under the present government, that reckless development without addressing environmental or social issues, does not lead to progress. The unfolding tragedy in Joshimath, considered a holy town for being the gateway to the hill shrine of Badrinath, is but the latest in a long series of disasters in the Uttarakhand Himalayas caused by unrestrained construction, infrastructure and urbanisation in these fragile mountains. These human-induced calamities, in the western Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have been in the recent past,  exacerbated by the effects of human-induced climate change like extreme rainfall leading to floods, landslides and so on.

Joshimath, at an altitude of 6000 feet,  has now been badly hit by land subsidence i.e., sinking of the land, causing large cracks and structural damage of roads, buildings and other infrastructure affecting almost a quarter of the town. Over 720 houses have so far been assessed as severely damaged in four badly affected zones, and 89 buildings including residences and hotels have been earmarked for immediate demolition as being unsafe for inhabitants and for nearby buildings. Several hundred inhabitants have been shifted to safer locations, while others are awaiting similar arrangements. Meanwhile affected inhabitants of Joshimath are up in arms at the destruction of their town despite repeated earlier warnings, and at the casual manner in which the district administration, the state government and even the central government has approached the disaster. Their approach is one of dealing with the immediate problem of damaged buildings through evacuation, compensation and shifting to temporary shelters, adding to the long list of “development refugees” in India where people lose their homes, savings and livelihoods while contractors and commercial ventures reap the harvest of destructive development. All those affected by the Joshimath disaster, who are victims of willful governmental negligence, must be fully rehabilitated and given due compensation immediately so that they too do not have to wait indefinitely as supplicants for what is due to them.

However, the longer-term issue of on-going and continuing construction activities related to roads, hydro-electric projects and haphazard urbanisation without taking into consideration the fragility of the mountain ecosystem and its vulnerabilities, must also be addressed. Whereas decisions regarding immediate response measures in the aftermath of the Joshimath disaster were taken at a meeting of state and central government officials, the National Disaster Management Authority, Geological Survey of India, and the National Institute of Hydrology, numerous earlier reports by these very institutions and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology raising danger signals have been ignored. Study reports by these institutions, including high-powered committees set up by the state government dating back to the famous MC Mishra Committee report of around 50 years ago, and other experts have underlined the geo-morphological, geological and seismic fragility of the region and the consequent dangers of major construction activities.

These experts have pointed out that Joshimath, and many other towns in the region, have been built over very weak and unstable soil and stone substrate consisting of loose material left behind by glacial movement and earlier landslides. This limits the carrying capacity of settlements which have, however, grown haphazardly and to over-burdened size in terms of residents and increasing numbers of tourists. The region is classified as seismic Zone-V, the highest level of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic activity, which can be exacerbated by heavy construction activity such as blasting and tunneling as done in the area. Blockage of natural drainage by poorly planned construction can also cause instability and exacerbate landslides. As a result, satellite data reveal that Joshimath has been sinking at a rate of 6.5cm per year.

The chief minister of the BJP government of Uttarakhand, Pushkar Singh Dhami, has misleadingly described this as a “natural disaster” while, on the other hand, construction activities at the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugarh “run of the river” hydel project, whose tunneling work has been undertaken close to the town, and the Joshimath-Badrinath highway, have been halted in response to local anger. Blasting has been prohibited in the area, but locals have pointed to sign-boards announcing schedules for blasting in different construction pockets.  Even now, despite the ban on construction, TV channels have reported that, in the absence of any monitoring, some sort of  construction activity is taking place in the area. This total lack of regulation and enforcement is characteristic of infrastructure construction in the region. The famous Char Dham Highway linking major religious sites was allowed by the Supreme Court to be widened and proceed unhindered, with no regulation imposed.  Joshimath is today paying the price for this “development at any cost” approach.

It is likely that other parts of Joshimath town will also suffer from subsidence in months and years to come. Other towns and locations in the region are also similarly vulnerable. The valley town of Rudraprayag has already reported cases of major cracks in residences and other buildings.

It is clear that, whatever measures are taken to tackle the current Joshimath disaster, a comprehensive review is required of infrastructure and other construction activities in the fragile western Himalayan region. What is required is a well conceived pathway towards environmentally sensitive development minimising harm to local residents and visitors.

(January 11, 2023)