- Considered as holy, the town of Joshimath in the Chamoli district, located at an altitude of 6,150 feet, is sinking rapidly due to human-induced causes.
- In this context, this edition of the burning issue will elaborate on the Joshimath crisis.
- A tourist spot: At a height of 6,107 feet, Joshimath is a busy town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Despite a population of only about 23,000, it has been heavily built on, with hotels, resorts, and a bustling market that caters mainly to tourists, pilgrims, trekkers and personnel of the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
- Linked to Adi Shankaracharya: Joshimath was established by Adi Shankaracharya in North India. The math has temples of Badrinarayan and Rajrajeshwari Devi. It has a sacred cave where Adi Shankaracharya supposedly undertook tapasya.
- Strategic significance: After the 1962 India-China war, Joshimath emerged as a place of strategic importance as it leads to villages along the India-China border. It is also en route to Barahoti, a disputed territory along the border.
- Pilgrimage site: The town is also a gateway to noted sites of pilgrimage — Badrinath for Hindus and Hemkund Sahib for Sikhs; the international skiing site of Auli; and the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What is happening in Joshimath?
- Cracks first appeared in a few houses in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town in October 2021. Over a year later, by January 11, 2023, 723 houses in all of the nine wards in the town had developed major or minor cracks on the floors, ceilings and walls. In response, 145 families have been temporarily moved to safer locations within the town.
- Subsequently, cracks continued to appear around town and residents resorted to repairs. The situation became particularly alarming towards the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 when large parts of the town experienced sudden land sinking and several houses developed major cracks.
What is land subsidence?
- Land subsidence is when the ground sinks or settles. It can happen because people are taking too much water or minerals from the ground, which causes the ground to sink.
- It can also be caused by natural processes, like soil compaction or the movement of the earth’s crust. Land subsidence can cause problems like damage to buildings and roads, and can make it more likely for flooding to occur.
Reason for land subsidence in Joshimath
- Situated on Joshimath an old landslide: Joshimath is built on the deposits of an old landslide, which means that the slopes can be destabilized even by slight triggers.
- Lies in seismic zone V: The town is also in Zone V, which, as per India’s seismic zonation scheme, denotes the highest risk. It lies between two thrusts, the Main Central Thrust (MCT) and the Vaikrita Thrust (VT), and thus occupies a seismically active terrain.
- Construction of subsurface structures: The Government proposes to build 66 tunnels in the Uttarakhand Himalaya and 18 tunnels are already in operation. Building these subsurface structures could result in gross damage to the environment, including the concentration of pollutants from traffic exhaust compounded by a microenvironment with no sunlight and limited dispersion in such long-distance tunnels.
- Large-scale construction projects in the vicinity: The construction of highways and railway tracks has now become a prime cause for landslides and their occurrences have doubled over the years. The increased anthropogenic activities such as road construction have made the hill slopes extremely unstable. That is why the recurring landslides have gone up in numbers in the Himalayas.
- Descending groundwater levels: Irreversible impact on groundwater like descending water levels have been observed in the areas of tunnel construction. Erratic rainfall and ecological degradation associated with land use change for infrastructural development are already impacting mountain aquifer systems. Groundwater use in the Himalayan States differs from that in the plains, as large and contiguous aquifers do not exist in the hills.
- NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro project: It has been recorded that the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro project tunnel which passes just below Joshimath, could be a contributing factor to this phenomenon. During the construction of the tunnel, a boring machine perforated a water-bearing stratum on the left bank of the Alaknanda river near Shelong village, leading to a discharge of 60-70 million litres per day. This must have led to the gradual depletion of pore pressure within the sediment leading to aquifer compaction and settling of the ground.
- Unsustainable tourism: The Himalayan terrain demands sustainable tourism, not mass tourism. The daily average footfall last year along the Char Dham route was reported to be around 58,000. There is the unregulated rise in tourism that has led to a construction boom in unsafe zones such as river valleys, floodplains and slopes vulnerable to landslides.
- Lack of drainage and wastewater disposal systems: The 2022 USDMA report also pointed to a lack of drainage and wastewater disposal systems as being part of the subsidence problem. According to Mr. Sati, about 85% of buildings in the town — including those owned by the Army — aren’t connected to a sewerage system and have soak pits instead.
About the Mishra Committee report on Joshimath
- Land subsidence was noticed in the area decades ago. The then Uttar Pradesh government (Uttarakhand was then a part of Uttar Pradesh) formed a committee led by M.C. Mishra to study its causes.
- The committee’s report of 1976 warned against heavy and unscientific construction in the town, further reporting that Joshimath is a deposit of sand and stone and hence was not a suitable place for the coming up of a township. Vibrations produced by blasting and heavy traffic will also lead to disequilibrium in natural factors.
- However, Joshimath continued to develop exactly the way the Mishra committee had advised against.
Other major Disasters in the Himalayas
- Chamoli disaster due to avalanche in June 2021: Large mass of snow, ice and rock avalanche along with a hanging mass of rock crashed into the Raunthi Garh valley floor thus killing 78 people.
- Kedarnath floods, 2013: In the early hours of June 17, 2013 a flash flood came down upon the overflowing banks of the Chorabari lake in Uttarakhand. Carrying huge amounts of silt and rocks, it destroyed lives, houses and everything else that came it’s way. According to figures provided by the Government of Uttarakhand, more than 5,700 people were “presumed dead.” This total included 934 residents. The death toll was later placed at 6,054. Most of the dead were pilgrims.
Why frequent Landslides in the Himalayas?
- Heavy snowfall in winter and melting in summer. This induces debris flow, which is carried in large quantities by numerous streams and rivers.
- Himalayas are made of sedimentary rocks which can easily be eroded. These aides landslides.
- Drifting of the Indian plate causes frequent earthquakes and resultant instability in the region.
- Man-made activities like grazing, construction and cultivation abet soil erosion and risks of landslides.
- The Himalayas have not yet reached their isostatic equilibrium which destabilizes the slopes. It leads to landslides.
- Diurnal temperature changes are much more in northern India than in southern slopes. This weakens the rocks and aids mass wasting.
The larger picture in the crisis: Development vs Environment debate
- Traditionally, economic growth and development are seen as the primary goal of governments across the globe, devoted to the idyllic objective of upgrading their citizens’ living standards. However, economic growth cannot be discussed in a fair view without considering the environmental contribution to such aspirations.
- The interlinkages between the environment and economy are manifold; the environment lends its natural resources as inputs for the production of goods and services, and also acts as a sink of waste and emissions generated through such economic activities.
- Even with the increased environmental awareness in developing nations, the notion of promoting economic development at the cost of the environment is a well-accepted phenomenon. Most individuals, firms, and governments of developing countries have already surrendered to environmental degradation as a consequence of pursuing profits/income.
- In Joshimath’s case too, environmentalists are pointing towards the environmental damage that is being done in the name of development under the Char dham project, over-tourism and the multiple hydropower projects that are under construction in the Himalayan region or are in pipeline.
What is needed? The Way forward
- Finding an alternative source of energy generation: The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) report on the Chamoli disaster in April 2022 clearly states that “in the long term, it will be necessary to focus on finding alternative sources of energy, as the area appears to be environmentally sensitive”.
- Sustainable and regional development strategy: A development strategy for the Himalayas should not come at the cost of the environment. It should be primarily based on the region’s natural resources such as forest, water, biodiversity and ecotourism.
- Better construct small hydel projects: Rather than building massive dams, the focus should be on small projects that would help provide a local energy supply.
- Making Use of traditional knowledge: An appropriate strategy for human well-being should use traditional knowledge, agricultural practices, construction practices and local cultural aspects.
- Ensuring the safety of people: This should be an immediate priority. The state government should establish a clear and continuous communication channel with the affected people.
- Continuous seismic monitoring: of the region must be done using satellite technology and ground-level scientific studies.
- A risk-sensitive urban development plan: for Joshimath should also be developed in addition to a relief, rehabilitation and compensation policy.
What 1976 Mishra Committee Report had suggested-
- Imposition of restrictions on heavy construction: Construction should only be allowed after examining the load-bearing capacity of the soil and the stability of the site, and restrictions should also be imposed on the excavation of slopes.
- Keeping the boulders: In the landslide areas, stones and boulders should not be removed from the bottom of the hill as it would remove toe support, increasing the possibility of landslides.
- Sealing of cracks: Cracks that have developed on the slopes should be sealed. The toe of a landslide is its bottom-most point.
- Conserving of trees: It has also advised against cutting trees in the landslide zone and said that extensive plantation work should be undertaken in the area, particularly between Marwari and Joshimath, to conserve soil and water resources.
- Agriculture on the slopes must be avoided: Activities like plowing loosens the soil thereby triggering the scope for landslides.
- Preventing water seepage: To prevent any more landslides in the future, the seepage of open rainwater must be stopped by the construction of a pucca drainage system.
- Cobbled roads: Roads should be metalled and without scuppers, that drain away the water from the road surface.
- River training: The construction of structures to guide the river’s flow should be carried out. Hanging boulders on the foothills should be provided with appropriate support.
- The Joshimath episode is a warning that the Himalayan environment is at a tipping point and it may not be able to withstand another push generated by intrusive anthropogenic activities in the form of massive construction projects of townships, highways, tunnels, railway tracks and dams — an ecosystem already grappling with the consequences of global warming. And, in this process, the devotees must be at the forefront to save the “Abode of the Gods”.
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