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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Jan 2023  Patralekha Chatterjee | Joshimath’s lesson: Don’t ‘over-develop’ Himalayas

Patralekha Chatterjee | Joshimath’s lesson: Don’t ‘over-develop’ Himalayas

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Jan 14, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jan 14, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Media reports say that cracks have appeared in more than 670 of some 2,500 buildings

The residents of Joshimath staged a massive protest when the district administration tried to demolish two hotels that fell in the “dangerous” category. (Photo: PTI)
 The residents of Joshimath staged a massive protest when the district administration tried to demolish two hotels that fell in the “dangerous” category. (Photo: PTI)

Joshimath is sinking. The new year has started off with these two chilling words on the top of our minds. In recent days, there has been a flood of reports about the trauma of life in Joshimath – India’s sinking Himalayan town -- and the ongoing evacuation efforts. Unless you have been living under a rock, by now, you would have got the broad drift of the various factors leading to the unfolding disaster in this town of around 25,000 people on the pilgrim circuit in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district.

Media reports say that cracks have appeared in more than 670 of some 2,500 buildings. At the time of writing, residents are objecting to the state government’s attempts to demolish several unsafe structures; they say the interim relief of Rs 1.5 lakh each to the affected families is simply not adequate. The residents of Joshimath staged a massive protest when the district administration tried to demolish two hotels that fell in the “dangerous” category. Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami says a study of the “bearing capacity” of all the towns and cities in Uttarakhand will be done. The state government says it will stop any “development work” that is beyond the bearing capacity of the place.

On January 16, India’s Supreme Court will hear a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking its intervention regarding the sinking land in Joshimath. In a petition filed last week, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, a seer, has requested the court to declare the current incidents of land sliding, subsidence, sinking land, cracks in properties as a “national disaster”, and has asked for a scheme for disaster relief and rehabilitation.

One cannot be faulted if all this has a familiar ring. There are warnings that are ignored. Disaster strikes. There is panic. And calls for evacuation. Since there is little disaster-planning, people resist. There are protests. And in all the sound and fury, there is a familiar framing of the crisis: development versus environment.

But this is a faux debate, not just in relation to Joshimath but the entire Himalayan region. The problem is not “development” per se, but unsuitable development which does not factor in geography, geology, ecology or climate change.

Nothing that is happening today comes as a surprise. There have been any number of reports and any number of warnings about the disastrous consequences of development of a certain type in the ecologically fragile Himalayan region. Back in the 1970s, a government study sounded the alarm about sinking Joshimath. The study made key recommendations, including a ban on heavy construction work in the area. It also flagged the danger of landslides. The recommendations remained just that. Political parties cutting across the ideological spectrum chose to ignore them.

The years that followed saw the place morphing into a favourite of those headed towards the pilgrim centres of Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib. The booming pilgrim/tourist economy meant a proliferation of hotels and eateries. Then there are hydroelectric power projects in the vicinity.

There is nothing wrong in catering to tourists and pilgrims. It generates much-needed jobs. The problem is that the Himalayas is the world’s youngest mountain range. The entire Himalayan region is extremely fragile -- prone to landslides, seismic activity, erosion, soil subsidence and so on. Climate change is now a threat multiplier.

So, not all development activities are suitable for this area. To say this loud and clear is not being anti-development but pro-development as development of the wrong kind in a fragile terrain leads to disasters of the kind we have seen and are seeing, and disasters derail development work.

Ecologist Chandra Prakash Kala pointed out in a June 2014 report for the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction: “The highest mountain region in the world, the Himalayas, being structurally unstable and young, is still geologically active… fragile and vulnerable to both natural and man-made processes…” Kala argued that in the name of globalisation, industrialisation and “so-called modernisation”, people have “overlooked the natural ecosystems and carrying capacity of the Himalayas, besides the traditional beliefs and norms of nature conservation”. The number of pilgrims has increased exponentially at major pilgrim centres across the Himalayas, he noted.

“Disaster and development are interrelated actions. Disaster can destroy development initiatives and at the same time it sensitises the need for appropriate and mindful development. Roads are needed for development but to be crazy for roads and more roads may take a big toll on the ecology,” Kala wrote.

In the coming days, we must ensure that the discussions around “Joshimath Sinking” do not overlook issues around the kind of infrastructure development that the Himalayan region can bear. As environmentalist Vimlendu Jha pointed out on social media: “Ideally, any development and urbanisation strategy should consider acceptable levels of risk.”

The central issue is the development model being pursued not just in Uttarakhand, but the entire Himalayan region, from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. The large infrastructure projects which pose a threat to the fragile ecosystem include the 60-odd tunnels being constructed in various parts of Uttarakhand and the dams in the entire state. The kind of cracks we now see in Joshimath houses have been appearing in homes near hydropower projects all over Himachal Pradesh. And despite all this, the Arunachal Pradesh government has just this week revived four similar projects.

The Himalayan development model needs to synchronise with the Himalayan context. That means, as many experts have pointed out, a few basic things: when building roads or boring tunnels, do not obstruct any water channel overground or underground; make sure the water can flow down the slope as before. Second, do not toss rubble down the slope -- it obstructs not only the water channels below but also the river/stream at the bottom of the valley. Residents have repeatedly accused managers of the two major projects around Joshimath -- widening of the Char Dham road and tunnelling for the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project -- of ignoring these basics.

On a wider scale, we need to question the prevailing model of generating large amounts of electricity in one place and then carrying it all over India. We need to ask if the region and the country will be better served by a combination of decentralised solar, wind and small hydropower.

What about economic growth and GDP? The answer is short and simple. As Princeton Economist Ashoka Mody recently told a national newspaper: “The licence for ‘anything goes’ has to end. Environmentally, we cannot disregard the needs of current and future generations. Joshimath is sinking. Your GDP is growing, but if you don’t address these imperatives, our children’s GDP will be lower.”

Tags: supreme court, chamoli, joshimath, uttarakhand