Canary in a coalmine?

Joshimath crisis has exposed the need for a climate-resilient development administration

Canary in a coalmine?

The Joshimath land subsidence is a grim warning to our political leaders, development administrators and local people living in ecologically fragile Himalayan Mountain systems. Several concerned citizens, as also many phony experts and social crusaders, have jumped the queue for raising this issue in social media. The agitation of the local people made an impact as the Prime Minister’s office has taken up the issue, and the firefighting is underway by the state government. The Himalayas are geologically young folding mountains with rough ranges and ecologically fragile landscapes extending over 2,400 sq. km west to east. Source of major river systems, the Himalayas and their combined drainage basin are home to some 650 million people; 60 million people live in the Himalayas. Rapid unscientific development and an increase in population has accentuated the occurrence of natural disasters in the Himalayan region. The situation is getting further complicated by climate change which has severely affected the water cycle and water channels.

Coming back to the present crisis of the sinking of Joshimath, this town is situated on the debris of landslides at a height of 6,150 metres, and has a population of more than 61,000 people. Joshimath is a gateway to many tourist places, trekking expeditions, and pilgrim sites like Badrinath Temple and Hemkund Sahib. It is here that the Jyotirmath Peeth — one of the four cardinal Hindu religious institutions — was established by Adi Shankaracharya. The population of this town in 2011 was only slightly above 16,500 and only around 3,900 families were living there. In 1975, a committee appointed by the state government of Uttar Pradesh had warned about the geological instability of Joshimath, and recommended several steps, stressing that the undercutting by river currents of Alaknanada and Dhauliganga are bringing in erosion and landslides. It was witnessed with ferocity on February 7, 2021, when a massive flash flood of a devastating fury occurred in the Dhauliganga River. The Dhauliganga is a source stream tributary of the Ganga River, and merges with the Alaknanda River at Vishnuprayag at the base of Joshimath. The cause of the flood, on initial speculation, was attributed to the breakdown of a glacier in ‘Rainee’ village, around 25 km from Joshimath. Such disasters have been happening regularly in almost all the districts of Uttarakhand and reminding the people and the administration to take proactive steps to prevent further damage to the fragile ecosystem, especially after the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013.

I first studied the situation in 1998 when I led a Central inter-ministerial team after the flash floods in Rudraprayag and other Garhwal regions during the monsoon. In an interaction with the state officers’ team led by the Commissioner of Garhwal on October 24, 1998, I had stated that the main cause of the natural disaster was unplanned, uncontrolled and unscientific development, especially the construction of buildings, homes and roads on vulnerable slopes; uncontrolled minor mineral mining; and choking of natural drainage systems. Our team had recommended the identification of geologically sensitive and vulnerable spots and villages, and rehabilitation of people of these villages was made to other areas, with maximum focus on ensuring that water channels, drainages and sub-surface water channels are maintained throughout the year. But no action was taken either by the state or the Central government. As a result, some of these villages were washed away during the Kedarnath flash floods on June 15, 2013, causing a huge damage to life and property.

After Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2001, a mad rush began to plunder the resources of the region by the unimaginative and corrupt political leadership. Those who were moving on cycles and scooters are now having several luxury cars, houses and investments. The bureaucracy was no different, with honest ones cooling their heels in the corner. The unabated invasion of hills by outsiders continued, as proved by the Ankita murder case. The loose sub-surface water bodies led to collapse during heavy rains due to climate change. Seepage of sewerage, choking of drainage systems and soil erosion by river water currents, coupled with indiscriminate blasting of hills for road widening and hydro power tunnelling, are responsible for the Joshimath subsidence and disasters elsewhere. It is also happening in other areas, and the danger is looming large over the Tehri Dam as well, if immediate steps are not taken to study the geology of the entire mountain system. The Char Dham roads were supposed to be constructed on pillars like those used in China but the way it was constructed caused severe damage. The Karanprayag Railway line also caused a lot of blasting in the hills, and the energy that underground blasts generated must have travelled through the faults to create further instability. I am of the firm opinion that there was no need for this 125-km railway line, for two reasons. First is the ecological reason, and second an economical one because, traditionally, in the absence of an industrial base in the region, a large number of people have been dependent on the transport business. For security reasons in border areas, other modern ways to reach the frontiers can be ensured. Among the whole gamut of problems, the local people ignored the need for environmental stability, and unscientific tourism further damaged the ecology. In nutshell, society and the government both are editing the face of Himalayas which is also the face of India.

Now the question is, where do we go from here? As for short-term action, the government should restrict the population in Joshimath to only 25,000 and rehabilitate others, apart from taking strict action against construction of six-storey hotels without permission. The Army, ITBP and other institutions need to ensure a fool proof sewerage system, and maintain the hydrology of the area. The hydropower policy must be reviewed and more focus should be given on solar power in the hills. Climatic crises call for rapid transformation of societies, a change of attitude by the developed world, and action by developing countries. Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult situations in life. The agitating locals must realise their mistake too; without their help, things would not have reached this stage.

In the long term, to ensure climate resilience at the landscape level in all our development planning and execution in the districts, blocks and village panchayats, climate resilience must form the core of the development regime, with essential focus on convergence between different departments. District Magistrates must act as sectoral leaders in ensuring climate-resilient development rather than merely acting as coordinating agency for the government, and other department officers should also come out of the habit of working in silos and act as a team. There is a strong link between sustainable economic development and climate change; and coordinated cross-sectoral policies and planning can play a role in catalysing synergies to improve life not only in the Himalayas but in the entire country as well.

The writer is Chairman of Centre for Resource Management and Environment. Views expressed are personal

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