Joshimath Crisis: Havoc in the Hills

There is consensus among experts that the present rate of growth in tourism and infrastructure development is unsustainable

Getty Images
Getty Images

Pankaj Chaturvedi

Activist Atul Sati walked out of a meeting at Joshimath in a huff on January 11 after senior government officials virtually refused to understand—or at least acknowledge—the seriousness of the situation in Joshimath. An old resident of the town, Sati has been instrumental in drawing attention to the crisis caused by cracks on walls and ceilings that began to appear a year ago and accelerated since November 2022. His social media posts and video reports alerted the media outside and brought activists together.

It was Sati who flagged the tunnel being drilled by NTPC for a hydropower plant in the region besides construction of a bypass road as possibly the principal factors causing subsidence and the cracks. But he was derided as an “alarmist” and a “communist” and accused of unnecessarily causing panic in the region.

His campaign nevertheless prompted Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami to finally pay a visit this week to the temple town. The administration was forced to order temporary closure of work on the tunnel and the bypass. Seven hundred houses were identified for evacuation and on Wednesday secretary to the chief minister, R.Meenakshi Sundaram, announced an interim compensation of Rs 1.5 lakh to each of the affected people.

Unhappy at the IAS officer insisting that there was no cause for panic, that the cracks were confined to a small area and that no new cracks were developing, Sati asked him to declare Joshimath to be completely safe in that case. When the officer demurred and held that this was for the experts to say, Sati decided to walk out. He was back with a Facebook live accusing the administration of underplaying the crisis without visiting the spots and talking to the affected people.

Scientists, of course, cannot predict with certainty when and where the next earthquake will strike; or for that matter the next cloudburst, glacial breach, flash floods or landslide. With a lot riding on tourism, the government is understandably wary about hyping the possibilities of natural disasters.

Nor is anyone certain that natural disasters will not hit the region in the next few months, years or decades. This uncertainty is what is causing anxiety to the residents. The thought of having to leave their home, business, milch cows, land and still having to pay their EMI on bank loans is a trauma they will take time to absorb and overcome. In the meanwhile, no snowfall had taken place till this week at Auli, 15 kilometre from Joshimath, where the winter carnival is scheduled for February, raising fresh question marks on tourist arrivals.

Not just Joshimath and Auli but other tourist hotspots in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) are also feeling the heat. Nobody knows for sure whether a disaster is imminent but there is popular consensus among both experts and people that the present rate of growth in tourism and infrastructure development are possibly unsustainable and eventually unproductive. If people get killed and villages disappear, how will the ‘development’ help?

How long before restrictions are put on tourist arrivals, vehicles and construction? How long before popular destinations like Shimla, Manali, Nainital, Mussoorie, Shillong and Gangtok go through similar uncertainties are some of the questions, which have however no answers.

Tourism has undoubtedly played a major role in generating employment and income in the region. A report by the Govind Vallabh Pant National Institute of Environment, for example, recorded last year that Himachal Pradesh currently has 3,350 hotels, 1,656 Home Stays, 2,912 travel agencies, 898 photographers and 1,314 tourist guides registered with the tourism department of the state. The numbers for Uttarakhand, which receives many more tourists, are not readily available but are likely to be higher.

The built-up area in Manali was just 4.7 per cent in 1989, studies record, but the area increased to 15.7 per cent in 2012 and is estimated to be 25 per cent in 2022. Studies also indicate that the number of visitors to Manali registered a whopping 5,000 per cent increase in the 42 years between 1980 and 2022.

There has also been an exponential increase in the number of vehicles. In 2007, there were just 3 lakh vehicles of all kinds registered in Himachal Pradesh. The number in 2019 was 16 lakh. In Uttarakhand, from where figures for 2022 are available, the number of registered vehicles was 32 lakh.

Towns that could suffer a Joshimath-like fate, say experts, include Karnaprayag and Gopeshwar, Munsiari, Nainital, Dharchula and Ghansali among others. “Land subsidence has been reported from all these towns. Streams and springs, which serve as natural discharge channels, have been blocked by multi-storeyed buildings. Haphazard construction has been going on without keeping the region’s geographical sensitivity in mind,” points out S.P. Sati, a geologist at the HN Bahuguna Garhwal University.

Experts also say that Nainital’s highest incline, Naini Peak, is slipping as is Baliyana. A fault runs right below Naini lake in the town, which lies in seismic zone 4. Joshimath, Munsiari and Dharchula fall in seismic zone 5. Prof B.S. Kotliya, a geologist, points to the steady decline in the water level of the lake in Nainital. Both rain and snowfall have been scanty in recent years. While British colonial rulers had not only banned new constructions in Nainital but had also banned grazing by animals and damaging or removing the grass long before independence, the present rulers are oblivious to environmental hazards, they allege.

The allegations are not entirely without substance. Two years ago, the government sanctioned Rs 700 crore for a 2.74 km tunnel to regulate vehicular traffic to Mussoorie. The hill town has a population of 30,000 but receives five million visitors every year. In a study in 2010, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration had warned that Mussoorie was living beyond its ‘carrying capacity’. Therefore, the very idea of facilitating more traffic to the town appears to be flawed, say experts.

Earlier attempts to dig tunnels around Mussoorie were, however, abandoned. In 2014, the PWD had proposed as many as four tunnels to link Cart Mackenjie Road to Kempty Falls. The proposal was shelved. Similarly, a century ago plans to lay a railway line to Mussoorie were abandoned following landslides and resistance by inhabitants. But this time the plans were cleared in 2020 during the Covid lockdown.

In a bid to facilitate “religious tourism”, the government is going ahead with railway lines linking Rishikesh to Karnaprayag and Joshimath. Blasting of the hills and tunnels is looked upon with trepidation by people.

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra, who had resigned in disgust from the high level expert committee constituted at the behest of the Supreme Court to review projects related to Char Dham Yatra, scoffs at “religious” tourists. Pilgrims, he maintains, were always austere. Their needs were simple and they regarded hardships on the way as an integral part of penance and pilgrimage. The Shankaracharya in the 8th century did not reach Joshimath, Badrinath and Kedarnath in a helicopter. But today’s religious tourists demand comfortable and faster travel.

This is plain commerce and there is nothing religious about it, insists Chopra. Pilgrims to Gangotri were restricted earlier and the restrictions should again be imposed on the number of visitors to the hills, he adds.

There is, of course, no dearth of reports and studies with dire predictions and elaborate suggestions to stop exodus from the hills, conserving water and ensuring livelihood. Even the government thinktank Niti Aayog commissioned multiple studies by different agencies like the Indian Himalayan Central University Consortium and Govind Vallabh Pant National Institute of Environment. But there is no evidence to suggest that the findings of these studies have received the seriousness and the attention they deserve.

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