How to save Joshimath?
The sinking town points to the climate change risks faced in vulnerable areas such as the Himalayas
17 Jan 2023
Warnings were being given for some decades that Joshimath would sink one day (Image: Vaibhav, Wikimedia Commons)

On January 7, 2023 Joshimath city in Uttarakhand was declared a land subsidence zone. About 60 families have been moved to temporary relief centers from their houses that have become unlivable. Another 90 families are yet to be shifted to safer places. Joshimath city has a total of 4500 buildings out of which 610 have suffered major cracks. The number of damaged buildings may increase.

People have been accommodated in hotels, colleges and a Gurdwara. The state government has decided to give Rs 4,000 per month for six months to those people who want to get a house on rent. The state government has also appealed to people not to stay in damaged houses.

The town of Joshimath is located at an altitude of 6000 feet between Badrinath and Hemkunt Sahib (two religious places) in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state. Cracks started appearing in the walls of houses and buildings here since the last few months.

At first, people ignored these cracks and filled them with cement, but from the last week of December, the size of these cracks began to increase rapidly, and the walls of the houses started sliding downwards. A corner of a room in a house collapsed, someone's yard, one's staircase, one house scattered in many places.
There were big cracks in the roads due to which people started facing a lot of difficulty. Electric poles started sliding down and trees also started falling to the ground. Due to cracks in many places, water started to flow out of the earth on its own.

Seeing this kind of natural disaster in the city, the people of the city appealed to the administration for rescue efforts. At first, the administration did not pay attention to this tragic phenomenon. When people of the city and the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Committee started protesting against the administration, they took action. 

The government, and some people, are attributing the phenomenon of buildings and houses slipping in Joshimath city to the increasing human population, and the increasing number of buildings in the city in the last few years. In 1950, only 8,719 people lived in Joshimath, but in 2020 their number has increased to 34,188. While the increase of houses and persons may not have added much weight on the land of Joshimath, the main cause of this crisis is the unplanned development taking place in and around Joshimath city.

The state government has recently ordered an immediate shutdown of construction work of the Helang bypass to the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project, and all other construction work. Along with this, a 14-member committee has been formed to investigate the causes of the landslide in Joshimath city. This committee includes, Geological Survey of India, Wadia Institute and I.I.T. experts from Roorkee. After declaring Joshimath city as a landslide-prone area, the Uttarakhand government has ordered the demolition of houses and buildings that have suffered major cracks. The demolition of buildings and houses started on January 10.

People say that the Joshimath landslide and the cracks in their houses were caused by the 12-km-long tunnel under construction for the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC)'s Tapovan Vishnugad hydro-electricity project, Char Dham road. Helong-Marwadi bypass project, which will reduce the distance from Joshimath to Badrinath by 30 km, and some other plans are underway around Joshimath. Local people want all development activities around Joshimath to be stopped and the Uttarakhand government to arrange permanent resettlement of the residents of Joshimath.

The city of Joshimath hosts the pilgrims of Badrinath and Hemkunt, two religious places. There is a cantonment in this city for the accommodation of soldiers. Apart from this, the city also provides a base camp for mountain climbers and accommodation for tourists visiting the Valley of Flowers. Big hotels have been built in Joshimath for the accommodation and catering of so many tourists and pilgrims. Multi-storied hotels, Tapovan Vishnugad and NTPC hydro-power projects, Char Dham road, 12 km long tunnel, Helang to Marwadi road and other such projects have led to the destruction of Joshimath.

Tapovan Vishnugad and NTPC hydro-power projects is where a large part of the Nanda Devi Glacier fell into the Alaknanda River near Joshimath on February 7 2021. In this incident, the Rishiganga hydro-power project was badly damaged. Tapovan Vishnugad and NTPC hydropower projects were also heavily damaged. There is a 12 km long tunnel between Tapovan and Vishnugad, through which water from Dhauliganga is to be brought to Selang Power House to save electricity.

This tunnel is passing through the same mountain along which the city of Joshimath is situated. More than 200 workers were killed working in this tunnel in 2021. Char Dham road which is 900-km long also passes through Joshimath.

The landslides of Joshimath houses, the destruction of hydro-power houses in 2021 and the suffocation of tunnel workers are not the only incidents that the city of Joshimath and the people of Uttarakhand have faced while running in the blind race of unplanned economic development.

Earlier, on June 16 2013, the people of Uttarakhand suffered a lot due to unplanned development in the state. If we talk about Joshimath alone, even in 1970 some houses of Joshimath had cracks. So, the landslide in Joshimath is neither a new phenomenon nor has it happened suddenly.

In view of the cracks in the houses, on the demand of the people, the administration formed the Mishra committee to find short-term as well as long-term solutions for landslides in this area. In 1976 this committee had recommended a ban on any heavy construction in the area because according to the Mishra committee, Joshimath is already built on land that has slipped from the mountains. Deforestation of natural forests near this area and blasting of mountains with explosive materials can cause severe damage to the sensitive environment here.

Even in 2009, the water started flowing in the city due to the rupture of the aquifer. Aquifers are underground water resources. Due to careless construction in Joshimath, water is leaking at many places in the city and the ground is sinking.

Even after the Chamoli tragedy in February 2021, the committee formed on the request of the local residents surveyed the area around the Joshimath and said that the Joshimath could sink with further excavation work. On the recommendations of this committee, the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority constituted a multi-institutional committee for geological and geo-technical survey of Joshimath city in August 2022. This committee submitted its report in September 2022 that the land in this area is in a very unstable condition, so it is dangerous to build more here.

At various times in Uttarakhand, governments have formed committees and conducted surveys, but none of the committee's reports have been implemented. Road widening and construction of large hydro-power projects continue unabated despite warnings from geologists and protests by local people.

The people of Uttarakhand have been conscious about the preservation of the environment since the time of British rule. These people also strongly opposed the British government's cutting of forests and planting of oak trees in place of oaks.

In the 1970s, when the hydro-power projects started in the state of Uttarakhand, local people strongly opposed cutting of the trees. The Chipko movement started from Raini village in Uttarakhand. It is a pity that the village from where the Chipko movement started has fallen prey to unplanned development.

Hydro-power projects have not only sunk Joshimath, before this construction of Tehri Dam was opposed by Sundar Lal Bahuguna along with his colleagues for many years. Sundar Lal Bahuguna's house had also submerged and the government gave him a house for rehabilitation at a new place.

Joshimath is not the only city of Uttarakhand that is sinking into the ground, there are many other cities that are going through similar conditions. According to some geologists, Karnaparag and Gopishevar located in Chamoli district, Ghanshali in Tehri district, Munshiari, Dharchaula in Pithorgarh district, Bhatwari in Uttarkashi and Nainital in Pauri district etc. can also sink into the earth like Joshimath.

Subsidence houses and buildings in any place (city/village) cause financial loss as well as physical and mental distress to the people. Many people have spent their lifetime earnings on building a house. In their old age, when they lose their houses, it is a big shock.

Sometimes the government makes promises but takes years to fulfill them which can be very painful. In the case of Joshimath, the Uttarakhand government has promised to pay the house rent of Rs 4,000 to the people for six months. Only the future will tell whether this promise will be fulfilled or not.

The Uttarakhand government has ordered the demolition of damaged houses and buildings, but has only temporarily halted the projects that caused the accident, making it difficult to predict what will be decided in the future.

Now the question arises whether Joshimath can still be saved? The remaining houses of Joshimath can be saved if all the construction work going on in the Joshimath area is stopped. A large number of local trees should be planted to bind the soil of the hill slopes.

People whose houses have been destroyed should be resettled at safe places. The city plan should be revised with the opinion of geologists keeping the topography of the area in mind. The central government and the state governments should ensure that the areas in which the cities can reach a vibrant state in the future should be well maintained from now onward and there should be no delay in taking measures.

Roads and other constructions are required for the economic development of any region, but the development has to be done according to the geographical location of that region and the potential of its resources. Nature must be respected; it is only in its protection and sustainability that humans can survive. If the balance is tilted in favour of fast development and progress, things cannot last long. Development should be done for the people so that people are not deprived of their basic needs in the name of development.

Dr. Gurinder Kaur is a former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala. Views expressed are the writer’s own.

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