By Dr. Gyan Pathak
Joshimath has been sinking for months, but could grab attention of the governments at the Centre and the State only recently that too after the subsidence started dangerously manifesting itself. Warnings served in 1976, 2001, and 2013 were grossly ignored. Human greed continued to explore the natural resources hastening the sinking not only of the holy city of Joshimath but the entire mountain range that houses it and a host of other towns and villages.
Now, as has been reported, PM Narendra Modi is personally monitoring the situation. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has said that work is being carried out by the government in the region for security of the people, and has assured all possible help to save Joshimath. However, given the dismal track record of the executive, alleged to have interest in exploitation of the natural resources in the region with too much greed, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India on Tuesday for urgent hearing, which was denied and the case was posted for hearing on January 16. Obviously, the Supreme Court has greater role to play, since it is now not only a question of saving the sinking Joshimath but the entire fragile, seismically vulnerable, mountainous region housing the cities like Nainital, Uttarkashi, Bhatwari, Gopeshwar, Guptkashi, Karnprayag, Mussorie and many villages where houses have developed major cracks.
Government is trying its best to project the sinking of Joshimath as a natural disaster, which must not be allowed to pass as true, since it is in fact man made. Construction works over and under the land have been allowed to go on despite numerous warnings in the last five decades. Over the ground constructions have increased the load on the surface of the fragile nature of the land underneath, while underground constructions, tunneling, and explosions have shaken the rocky landmass causing this subsiding.
Officials have said on Wednesday that structures, including houses and hotels, having developed wide cracks and are on the brink of collapse will be demolished within a week. The Chief Minister has announced an interim aid of Rs 1.5 lakh for affected families along with Rs 50,000 as additional assistance for facing difficulties. The local people affected by the landslide will be compensated at the market rate, and the market rage will be decided after taking the suggestions of the stakeholders. The state has assured those who want to shift to a rented accommodation will be giver Rs 4,000 per month for six months. Both national and state disaster response forces have been deployed to aid the district administration in their relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Obviously, these are but a small relief works which leaves the greater question of saving the sinking Joshimath and the villages and towns of the entire mountain range almost unaddressed. Government has simply announced that an expert committee would study the situation. People are enraged on such an attitude of the governments and therefore have started their protest, when the administration moved to demolish unstable buildings.
District Magistrate of Chamoli has banned construction activities in Joshimath and nearby areas. As a first step, the government expects to evacuate over 6000 households out of about 25,000 in the town. After over 800 houses have been found developed major cracks, the town have been declared unsafe and therefore the entire city need to be ultimately evacuated. Experts say that the town cannot be saved not, it is too late now.
Neither the Centre not the State have ever been serious about saving Joshimath along with entire mountainous range. Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samity has been agitating and issuing repeated warnings to the state government for the last three years expressing their apprehensions that the town have been sinking. They even organized protest demonstration on December 24, 2022, which failed to arouse the governments from their slumber. As recent as on January 3, 2022, people organized blockade on the Rishikesh-Badrinath national highway, which fortunately succeeded to grab attention of the government.
NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project was damaged in a glacial disaster following which experts from the People’s Science Institute and geologists have visited Joshimath in late 2021, and also in 2022. It has been alleged that a tunnel is being dug under the town area. Construction of Helang bypass is also blamed for the disaster, for it is being constructed using heavy machines and explosions to clear the rocks. NTPC has said on January 5, 2023 that the tunnel would pass under the town and it is being dug through machines, implying there is no shaking up of the foundation of the town.
These are but like saving of the skins, but shows only the callousness of the governments, especially in the backdrop in which experts have all along been warning against large scale infrastructure projects including road and rail projects in the state’s fragile mountainous state falling on seismo-techtonics and earthquakes faultline. It should be noted that about 66 tunnels and over 200 dams are being built in the state putting the fragile hilly state at severe risk. Development is alright but it should not be carried forward beyond the fragile lands bearing capacity. The increased incidents of landslide in the states are allegedly the result of half-baked and unscientific projects. Even long back between 2009-2012, as many as 128 landslides were recorded in the Chamoli-Joshimath region as per CSIR chief scientist D P Kanungo.
Mahesh Chandra Mishra Committee report in 1976 has warned the dangers of tree felling and removing boulder for heavy construction and road works. Further in 2021, an independent committee of 12 scientific organisations had categorically warned that “further excavation works would sink Joshimath.” A map covering 124.54 sq km of sensitive landslide prone area was submitted to the state government. The area was divided into six regions according to the intensity of sensitiveness toward landslide. About 39 per cent was categorized as high-risk zone, 28 middle, and 29 of low risk. However, government failed to take appropriate action which resulted into lose of more than 4000 lives in 2013 in Kedarnath tragedy and landslide.
It is in this backdrop the government announcement of constitution of an expert committee to study the situation again is meaningless. People of the area need concrete actions rather than studies after studies without any action. Hope, Supreme Court would not allow such a manmade disaster to pass as a mere natural disaster, which the Centre and State governments would like to have. Relief works need to be stepped up earnestly compensating every loss, but more important is to save the entire region by halting unscientific and unsustainable development works. (IPA Service)