Governments shouldn’t start massive projects in hills without consulting experts, local people

If Joshimath can sink due to the weight of houses and people, what about cutting mountains with explosives

By Gurinder Kaur
Published: Friday 29 September 2023
Photo: Sunny / CSE

On September 25, 2023, the Uttarakhand government released reports on the causes of the sinking of land, houses and buildings in and around Joshimath city in December 2022 and January 2023. 

The reports, prepared independently by eight scientific and technical institutions, pointed out loopholes in construction works, increasing population pressure, poor drainage systems, seismic activities and constructions on water sources as the main causes of land sinking.

The documents submitted to the Uttarakhand government earlier in the year were made public only after the Uttarakhand High Court raised questions on September 20, 2023.

Nearly 99 per cent of the buildings in Joshimath were not constructed in accordance with the National Building Codes of India, 2016, noted the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee, in its report.

Read more: Ravi Chopra on Joshimath: ‘Nature has decided that enough is enough’

Moreover, the city is built on sediments brought by glaciers, pointed out the institute. These sediments with large and small stones do not provide a flat surface, making the land susceptible to gradual subsidence and sinking.

CBRI further suggested a need for reviewing the principles of town planning for the development of cities in hilly areas.

The National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, in its report, said various springs and drainage networks in areas of subsidence maps infer subsurface water in Joshimath to have some connection with subsidence.

According to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, this region is earthquake sensitive, due to which it is slowly and gradually sliding downward.

On the other hand, the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee’s study report pointed out that the overall soil structure of Joshimath is a complex mixture of stones, gravel and sand. The internal erosion in such soils destabilises the whole structure and results in the readjustment of the underlying land, leading to subsidence.

Similarly, the rest of the reports also cited deficiencies in building construction regulations, sub-soil formation, sewage disposal and population growth, among others, as reasons for the sinking of houses and buildings in the Joshimath.

However, these reports did not mention about the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) plans for the Tapovan Vishnugadh hydropower project, 12 km-long tunnel, Chardham Road project, Heilong Marwari Bypass, etc. Local people blamed these projects for sinking their land, houses and buildings in and around Joshimath.

It is also important to mention here that the population of Joshimath city has increased significantly during the last decades. In 1950, 8,719 people lived in Joshimath city, and in 2020, their number increased to 34,188.

If Joshimath can sink due to the weight of houses and people, what about cutting mountains with explosives, hydropower projects, Chardham road project, tunnels that cut through mountains, changes in the flow of rivers, and deforestation? The reports, however, did not mention the impact of all these projects on the Joshimath area.

The National Building Codes for constructing houses, other buildings and all kinds of projects should not be ignored since Uttarakhand falls in an earthquake-sensitive region. 

Read more: Joshimath dispatch: Afraid to report cracks in homes, locals protesting demolition of hotels say

In 1970, the local people here protested vehemently when the work of hydropower projects started. In 1976, the Mishra Committee Report concluded that before any construction and excavation of the mountains in any areas in ​​Joshimath, the soil structure, stability of the site and bearing capacity of the mountains should be assessed.

Some recent incidents

Environmental norms should be considered while creating massive infrastructures such as dams. Otherwise, it can result in loss of human lives. Recently, more than 11,000 people died and more than 10,000 went missing due to the collapse of two large dams on the Derna River. Nearly 30,000 people were displaced from their homes when these dams collapsed due to heavy rains in Derna, Libya.

In July and August 2023, millions of people became homeless due to the release of water from the dams in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Along with this, hundreds of people and animals were killed and financial losses of crores of rupees were incurred.

The state of California in the United States is working on a plan to let the rivers flow naturally by removing large dams to restore the natural environment to adapt to the changing climate. It started with removing dams built on the Klamath River in California.

These incidents show that we should not tamper with natural resources too much. Excessive exploitation of natural resources increases the intensity of loss of life and property during disasters.

After the Kedarnath disaster of 2013 and the Chamoli incident of 2021, local people and environmental experts suggested that before any construction in Uttarakhand, the area should be examined by geologists. 

Alas! After each tragedy, committees are formed, investigations are conducted and reports are also prepared. Whatever the report be, road widening or large hydroelectricity projects are going on without a hitch.

Around 11,219 landslides have occurred in Uttarakhand from 1988 to 2022, pointed out a report by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Nearly 1,123 landslides occurred in the state in 2023, according to the Uttarakhand State Emergency Operation Center data.

Moreover, a report by the Zoological Survey of India noted that 39,000 square kilometres (72 per cent area) of Uttarakhand is prone to landslides.

In a state like Uttarakhand, 72 per cent of the area is prone to landslides and any major project could lead to disasters. The massive projects going on in Joshimath, which is already settled on stones, gravel and sand, pose a huge threat to the existence of the city.

The state and central governments should not start big projects in such sensitive areas without taking the opinion of geologists, environmental experts and local people. The governments should form committees of geologists, environmental experts and local people to assess the impacts of ongoing projects around Joshimath.

In the mountainous areas of Europe, roads are made only 8-10 metres wide so that the ecology and the people there are not harmed. Besides Joshimath, many other cities like Karanprayag, Ghanshali, Nainital, Gopeshewar, and others are also facing similar crises.

To save the hilly states and cities of the country, the Centre and state governments should consider not to develop hilly states on the model of the plains. Development plans of the hilly states should consider the geographical, geological and topographical conditions there.

Many people displaced due to landslides have to bear substantial mental, physical and financial losses. Research organisations should also prepare reports conscientiously so that people do not face trouble again in the future. 

Moreover, governments should make such reports public instead of hiding them from people and ignoring the steps necessary to avoid such disasters.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

The author is a former professor at the Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala

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