India & Climate Change: Could Joshimath's Man-Made Disaster Be Averted?

Continuous construction in municipalities of Joshimath and infrastructure (roads, dams) have made the land unstable.

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(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Joshimath's sinking crisis currently unfolding in Uttarakhand and what can be done for protection of such fragile territories.)

On 8 Jan 2023, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) held a high-level meeting on the developing subsidence crisis in Joshimath.

After the PMO was briefed about the ongoing efforts which included the despatch of a team of the National Disaster Response Force, and a study visit by a team of experts from the National Institute of Disaster Management (NDMA), Geological Survey of India, IIT Roorkee, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and the Central Building Research Institute, it tasked the Uttarakhand government to prepare short, medium and long-term plans in conjunction with the central agencies.


Joshimath in Uttrakhand's Chamoli district is a border town of strategic and religious importance. It’s the Middle Sector’s gateway to the Indo-China border, and an important way station for religious pilgrimage (Badrinath, Hemkund Sahib) as well as to Auli, an international skiing destination.

Bound by four water channels— the Dhaknala, Karmanasa, Alaknanda and the Dhauliganga on its East, West, North and South respectively, Joshimath is situated over old landslides.

Joshimath’s Geological Crisis Not a Recent Phenomenon

As per Piyoosh Rautela, Executive Director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA), The area around Joshimath town is covered with a thick layer of overburden material. Large boulders of gneisses and fragments of basics and schistose rocks are embedded in grey-coloured, silty-sandy matrix which makes the town highly vulnerable to sinking.”

Aggravating Joshimath’s geological problem are two other issues:

  1. It’s located in Seismic Zone-V, sits astride tectonic and geological fault lines, and is earthquake-prone.

  2. The town has no sewage and wastewater disposal system even as incremental urbanisation has blocked the natural water drainage system. Together, this has forced water to find new drainage routes which is reducing the shear strength of the already-overburdened soil.


The problem, however, is not new. The subsidence in Joshimath was first reported in the MC Mishra Commission report of 1976 which had recommended a ban on heavy construction in the area in/around Joshimath. Yet, the area has continued to witness haphazard, indiscriminate development including high-rise buildings, as also the construction of projects like Asia's longest & highest ropeway, new roads under the Char Dham Project, the 420 MW Vishnuprayag Hydropower Project and the NTPC's 520 MW Tapovan Project.

According to Hemant Dhyani, environmentalist & member of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee on the Char Dham Project, the government had sanctioned the latter two hydroelectric schemes in spite of being aware of the area’s geological fragility, and that boring of tunnels below Joshimath likely initiated the subsidence.

Experts further opine that the flood of June 2013, the glacier burst of February 2021 and extreme weather event of 17 Oct 2021 (190 mm rainfall in 24 hrs) had further weakened the landslide zone.

In December 2021, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had after the Central government cited defence and security requirements, allowed widening of the Char Dham Project roads. Experts further opine that the under-construction Helang bypass aimed at reducing the distance to Badrinath shrine by 30 km likely exacerbated landslide activity on account of heavy machinery usage.

The subsidence began few months ago in the Gandhinagar area of Joshimath, soon spreading to other areas with the Vishnuprayag Hydel Project Colony being vacated on 3 Janurary after huge cracks appeared there. Presently about 600 houses in Joshimath out of about 4,500 buildings, have developed severe cracks.


Parts Of Joshimath Declared Sensitive 

On 5 January, Uttarakhand Chief Minister PS Dhami banned all construction activities. Thus, construction within the municipal area of Joshimath, widening of the Char Dham’s all-weather Helang-Marwari road, the Tapovan-Vishnugad project, and the Joshimath-Auli ropeway have all been suspended “until further orders” under the Disaster Management Act.

Two days later, he ordered the evacuation of 600 families from Joshimath, and on 8 January, he visited the area and ordered rehabilitation & relief for the displaced persons on ‘war footing’, and completion of sewage and drainage works before the monsoons. He also identified two places for resettlement in the future, viz, Pipalkoti and Gauchar.

On the same day, Joshimath’s nine municipal wards were declared a ‘landslide-subsidence zone’ with four areas deemed unsafe for living.


Construction Activity, Climate Crisis Pose Grave Risks to Joshimath’s Terrain

Barring the names of personalities, place(s), and the dates, this broad sequence of events will be recurrent as we glibly and continually ignore concerns and warnings over geological and environmental sensitivities, and when disaster is impending or strikes, then inundate the affected area with VIPs, dole out funds, schemes and relief and after public outbursts have dwindled, revert to business-as-usual. Three main reasons are behind such an approach:

Firstly, the constant quest to win elections and thus, woo the electorate including through religious causes. These are often driving powers-that-be to dismiss grave environmental warnings. Recall how the Char Dham, initially mooted as a religious-tourism-related project morphed into a defence-and-national-security issue prior to the hearings in the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

Secondly, the constant quest for increasing the GDP and per capita GDP in order to pull people out of poverty. This in turn, is leading the govt to consider infrastructure projects – power generation, water reservoirs, roads, etc in ecologically fragile zones, whereas the imperative should be to focus on sustainable development.

Thirdly, lip-service to Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). In spite of all the noise being made domestically and on International platforms, DRR is undervalued and not popular with politicians primarily because investments in DRR aren’t visible and immediate.

There are no roads / dams / tunnels etc to be inaugurated amidst personal tom-tomming, fanfare, media fawning and public adulation.

Given the scale of construction in the municipalities of Joshimath and of infrastructure (roads, dams) in/around it, the aggravation caused by earlier floods and glacier burst events, and with the damage already wrought, it may be impossible to stabilise Joshimath.

Add to this mix the extreme weather events occurring now on account of climate change— and it will be evident that most of Joshimath, if not all of it, may have to be abandoned eventually and its population relocated, with attendant economic, human and social consequences.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Climate Change   Uttarakhand   Landslides 

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