Will Indian policymakers learn their lessons from the Joshimath calamity?
Scientists, seismologists and geologists have repeatedly been warning of an ‘unprecedented disaster’ if the scramble to exploit the Himalaya continues at the current pace
While all the public and media attention is currently focused on the ‘sinking town’ of Joshimath, and for good reason too, it is perhaps also necessary to remind the powers that be that the problem is by no means limited to just this hill town. The elephant in the room is the big developmental assault in the Himalayas to promote religious tourism.
The Himalayas, stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, are the world’s youngest mountain range, and also the most fragile and vulnerable, scientists have repeatedly warned. The unrestrained urbanisation of these mountains, the rising temperature and melting glaciers have enhanced the risks of disaster in the region, which is highly prone to seismic activity anyway.
The race to exploit its natural beauty, strategic importance and abundant source of water have led to construction of dams and hydropower projects, roads and resorts in total disregard of warnings from the scientific community.
The government no doubt has bowed to public pressure for the time being and ordered temporary stoppage of work on infrastructure and power projects around Joshimath; but the lull is unlikely to last very long. With massive investments at stake, it is a matter of time, one is afraid, before the situation returns to business-as-usual.
With even scientists divided on the seriousness of the threats from indiscriminate construction and tunnels drilled in the hills, and whether they are imminent or a distant possibility, the pro-development lobby found it easy to dismiss nay sayers as anti-development prophets of doom.
The need for energy, employment and prosperity and the greed of powerful lobbies behind dams, power plants and construction led to aggressive promotion of tourism, connectivity and hydropower. The capital-intensive projects had enough money to promise everyone. From Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, as a result, roads are being widened at a frenetic pace, newer dams are being built, railway lines are getting laid and a mind-boggling number of hydropower projects are under construction.
The BJP government, which is always high on Hindutva, has also been at the forefront of promoting religious tourism. Uttarakhand alone is said to have received in the year 2022 some 50 million tourists and four and a half million pilgrims who registered for the Char Dham Yatra.
Joshimath, a small town with 20,000 inhabitants, hosted half a million guests and as many as 90 hotels have sprung up in and around the town. The increasing incidence of subsidence, landslides, random rocks raining down on villages, vehicles and roads, glacier-lake-outburst floods and cracks developing in houses and on the ground should ring alarm bells but planners and policy makers seem impervious to them.
Dire predictions for the Himalayan region are hardly scarce. Scientists, seismologists and geologists have repeatedly been warning of an ‘unprecedented disaster’ if the scramble to exploit the Himalaya continues at the current pace. Seismological studies have concluded that another ‘big earthquake’, much bigger than the one which devastated Nepal in 2015, is a certainty. Nine thousand people were killed in the earthquake in Nepal, to place the disaster in context.
One-fifth of the glacial lakes in the Himalayas, over 5,000 in number, are apparently close to hydropower plants. A staggering number of six hundred such plants are under construction by China and India. The worst fears of the scientists are borne out by the Kedarnath tragedy in 2013 and the devastating floods in Chamoli in 2021. Between 2015 and 2021 Uttarakhand alone is said to have recorded over 7,000 instances of extreme rainfall and cloudburst. What is much more visible is the stress on popular hill stations like Shimla, Nainital, Mussoorie and Darjeeling.
Unsustainable levels of consumption of water and edibles demanded by tourists and pilgrims have exacerbated the situation. Safety and environmental concerns, however, have been overruled by the government and Supreme Court of India on grounds of energy security and national interest.
While we seem to be driven by a ‘death wish’, there is a clear and imminent danger. A dispassionate analysis of the options now, a clear roadmap and clarity over the costs to be paid for development are what we need at this moment. Or else nature, as always, will have the last laugh.