U'Khand's Joshimath: Down the Slippery Slope of 'Development'

The onslaught of construction on the hill towns and villages of Uttarakhand has been relentless

Residents have been taking turns to sleep with several houses developing deep cracks in Joshimath
Residents have been taking turns to sleep with several houses developing deep cracks in Joshimath

Pankaj Chaturvedi

Reports from the Garhwal hills have never been grimmer. With cracks developing in more than 500 houses due to continued land subsidence in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath, over 3,000 people are out in the cold.

While this may be news to some, for locals this is an ongoing nightmare. Late last year, cracks developed in more than 220 homes in Sweeth, Dhamak, Nakrota and Dobripanth villages. Complaints against the railway ministry, and a 5-day protest by villagers who blocked the Rishikesh-Srinagar road had little effect. The Srinagar sub-divisional magistrate’s recommendation that the railways pay a compensation of Rs 1.54 crore to the affected villagers was brushed aside on the grounds that the ongoing construction (of the 125 km broad gauge link from Rishikesh to Karnaprayag) had nothing to do with the cracks.

The onslaught of construction on the hill towns and villages of Uttarakhand has been relentless. Flash floods overwhelmed Reni (home to the Chipko movement) when an avalanche damaged NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project in February 2021. The village was declared dangerous, and residents had to be evacuated to safer places.

NGOs active in the region report three landslides a day. Last year alone, between end-September and the first week of October, Kedarnath experienced three massive avalanches. The one that hit the higher reaches of the Uttarakashi hills on October 1 claimed the lives of 27 mountaineers.

The Himalayas are a relatively young mountain chain, comprising mainly of shale, which is a weak sedimentary rock. Unseen by the human eye, geological activities continue to take place in this still-growing range. Stress energies are stored along the boundaries where the Indian plate collides with the Eurasian plate. Not only does this result in rock deformation, it also erupts in the form of earthquakes through weak zones and fault lines.

Global warming causes erratic and heavy precipitation, resulting in even more avalanches. Add to this the explosions caused by dynamite-blasting for the widening of roads and the building of tunnels, and the earthquake risk shoots up, with the reach of the tremors going as far as Delhi. While the wanton felling of trees in the name of development leads to the destruction of the only thing that can prevent soil erosion—tree roots. The Himalayan region also has hundreds of streams which remain dry for years but become conduits for flash floods during cloud bursts or glacial bursts.

The devastating flash floods after a glacial burst in February 2021 damaged concrete houses built on the bed of ‘dry’ streams. Signs of climate change are also all too apparent. Chamoli, located in the rain shadow area, has moved from scarce rainfall to unseasonal downpours even in summer.

Scientists have repeatedly warned against over-construction and mindless commissioning of hydro projects (to date, over 500 of them) in such an eco-sensitive area. Warnings have thus far fallen on deaf ears. The grandiose Kedarnath and Badrinath Master Plans are being executed on moraines (unstable paraglacial sediment) in areas prone to natural disasters. The use of dynamite continues unabated. Environmental activist Sushila Bhandari was assured by Union home minister Amit Shah that dynamite would not be used in the mountains, but there seem to be no signs of it stopping “any time soon”.

Frequent subsidence, cloudbursts, landslides and flash floods are not new to this besieged Himalayan region. But the rapacious rate of ‘development’ in recent years has created new uncertainties and unforeseen consequences. A spike in the demand for hotels, resorts, water, roads and transport to cater to the seasonal influx of tourists has increased the use of diesel generators, exacerbated pollution, and hiked up waste generation, mostly non-biodegradable plastic.

The modern constructions are completely at odds with their environment. Traditionally, hill houses were built with local expertise, and local material. The outer walls of sun-baked bricks, clay and sand were plastered with a mix of chalk soil (putni mitti) and plants. These walls kept houses warm even when temperatures dropped below zero. They also turned out to be safer and stronger in a seismic zone. This is evident from the three-storeyed homes, temples and monasteries that have weathered every storm for hundreds of years, while the much newer cement houses are in danger of crumbling to the ground.

The Modi government has justified accelerated infrastructure development in the hills on grounds of national security. The Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal have accepted this argument, disregarding expert opinion against widening hill roads beyond five metre and further deforestation.

It is a fact that Uttarakhand does have a 300 km border with Chineseheld Tibet, with the Mana Pass barely 50 km from Joshimath. As many as 63 border intrusions by China have been reported in the last 10 years in the Barahoti area alone. As such, it is important to have good, all-weather roads for military movement to the border. But the so-called infrastructure under construction appears to be catering more to the demands of the tourism sector than the military. Not surprisingly, many residents believe the national security argument to be a smokescreen even as hoteliers, transporters and promoters reap windfall gains as domestic tourism, more specifically religious tourism, picks up.

At the commencement of the Char Dham Yatra in May 2022, as many as 9.5 lakh pilgrims registered with 3.5 lakh for Kedarnath. Experts estimated these figures were three times more than the capacity of these places. While religious tourism booms, it is the mountain that bears the brunt of motorised vehicles, emission and waste—all of which have long-term implications.

The short-term gains are glaringly evident. Glittering public facilities, highways, cheek by jowl malls and multiplexes and resorts have generated employment. Transporters and hoteliers have never had it so good. People are more prosperous than before and the political leaders are happy at such visible signs of progress. The devout are also happy at the facelift being given to their places of worship and the facilities being provided to the pilgrims, which include helicopter rides.

Not surprisingly, people raising ecological concerns about the over-exploitation of natural resources are derided as anti-nationals and ‘communists owing their allegiance to China’. Worse, they are described as ‘anti-Hindu, anti-development and anti-national’, as protestors in Joshimath have discovered to their chagrin in the past few months.

While the plight of people in Joshimath has belatedly caught the attention of the government and the media, similar issues in the rest of the state have gone largely unnoticed. Being an urban conglomeration and home to relatively well-off and politically-aware people, Joshimath has managed to have its voice heard. Most people, however, even within Uttarakhand, may not have heard of Jugju village in the Niti Valley near the China border. Bhotia villagers of Jugju for the past several years have been shifting to caves in the rainy season because landslides are now a daily occurrence.

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra and geologists Naveen Juyal and S.P. Sati have also drawn attention to the erosion caused by the river Alaknanda that flows past the town. Swapnamita Chowdhary, senior scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, points out that poor drainage and sewage systems in Joshimath are also responsible for land subsidence. Based on her studies of satellite pictures taken through through the European Space Agency’s Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), she added that indiscriminate constructions above and around storm drains have blocked the outlets for overflow during the rainy season.

While several studies have already been done on the retreating glaciers, especially the Gangotri glacier, experts have also cautioned that dried and drying water streams pose additional threats which need to be acknowledged. Older villages and towns on the slopes of mountains are more vulnerable and require special attention. Not only Joshimath, but all the districts across the Indo-Nepal and India-China border need help to cope with geological and environmental changes.

Joshimath: That Sinking Feeling

Is Joshimath finally sinking? Will the gateway to the Valley of Flowers survive? If so, for how long? These questions have begun to haunt inhabitants, many of whom are afraid, exhausted and sleepless. With cracks appearing on ceilings and walls and getting wider over the past few weeks, those who could leave, have left. Those who couldn’t are taking turns to sleep and stay awake at night, huddled together and praying that their homes do not cave in.

The last major habitation in this region near the China border, this town with a population of ~25,000 (16,000 as per the 2011 Census) has been living with the nightmare since 2021 when the first cracks were noticed in a number of houses. As they spread, residents panicked and invited a group of geologists and experts to study the phenomenon. The team concluded in August 2022 that fears of the town subsiding were real and advised emergency measures.

The state government belatedly woke up last month and directed the DM of Chamoli to evacuate people, if necessary. A meeting has also been convened on January 15 to take stock of the situation.

Since then, a stretch on the Joshimath-Helang highway has caved in. Homes, hotels, resorts, shops and offices have reported rapidly widening cracks while a hotel has tilted to a dangerous angle. Land subsidence has been reported from a number of places between the petrol pump and GREF camp on Badrinath highway; cracks have appeared in houses and fields in Manohar Bagh, Singdhar, Gandhi Nagar and Marwari wards. Tenants have vacated their rented houses and fled to safer places while house owners are left to wonder about the future.

Cracks have appeared in houses and fields in Manohar Bagh, Singdhar, Gandhi Nagar and Marwari wards.
Cracks have appeared in houses and fields in Manohar Bagh, Singdhar, Gandhi Nagar and Marwari wards.

S.P. Sati, a leading geologist and head of the department of Basic and Social Sciences at Garhwal University, had pointed out in October last year that besides Joshimath, ‘the gateway to the Badrinath temple and Hemkund Saheb’, several other towns in the Himalayas like Gangotri, Uttarkashi and Gopeshwar were also sinking “as they have been built on a thick cover of landslide material, which is inherently unstable”.

In a social media post, Vicky Rawat, an architect, concurred. “It’s a simple case of unplanned development, illegal construction and failure to understand and address the issue of water channels flowing underneath the mountains. The solution: planned water sewage drainage layout and lightweight construction techniques,” he posted.

A sharp increase in the number of tourists, hotels and resorts, road-widening projects, hydel plants and bypasses are being blamed. Residents also regret abandoning traditional houses in favour of ‘modern’ houses made of brick and mortar.

The influx of tourists led to a rush for water on tap—when people fetched water, they were more prudent in their usage and water wastage was less. Consumption of water went up from 21 litres per person to 75 litres in the summer months. More water flowing into the soil and down the slopes into the ground has made the land more vulnerable to subsidence.

The construction of the Helang-Vishnuprayag bypass (work on the project has now been halted by the Chamoli administration), tunnels being dug below Joshimath town for a hydel plant and the absence of a robust drainage system are cited as the other culprits, even as residents continue to keep their fingers crossed.

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