Joshimath crisis is a warning from the Himalayas

A development model based on local conditions and aspirations is necessary

By Prem Bahukhandi
Published: Thursday 19 January 2023
Ecologists and hydrologists believe Joshimath’s 12-kilometre-long tunnel is the reason for its crisis. Photo: Sunny / CSE

The current crisis in Joshimath is the consequence of choosing economics over ecology or the ecosystem. It was scripted from the time we opted for a development model that instigated the open plunder of natural resources.

It is well known that the Himalayan mountain range and its ecosystem are fragile. The Himalayas directly impact South Asia’s environment, society, and economy. Yet, greed prevents us from abiding by these facts.

In 2022, about 4.5 million pilgrims visited Char Dham, which was projected as a notable achievement of the Uttarakhand government and its tourism department.

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

However, nobody brought up the loss and damage to the ecology and pristine ecosystem of the Himalayas due to these tourists. The vibrations by vehicles, carbon dioxide emissions, filth generated by these visitors and the total damage to the mountain ecosystem were never brought up.

Policymakers and those celebrating this so-called achievement did not think of the heap of excrement produced, its scientific disposal or reducing, reusing and recycling of garbage. The economy generated by the pilgrims is the prime concern of the authorities, who do not leave any stone unturned to give the best services to the pilgrims.

If there’s any debris on the road at any place, authorities immediately send heavy machines to clear it so tourists do not face any trouble. This promptness, on the other hand, is never seen when pregnant women in remote Himalayan villages need medical help or an ambulance.

Furthermore, there is no concern about the reason behind the landslides, the road debris, or its probable effects on the ecosystem. There are no long-term efforts to reduce landslides, debris or their impact on the fragile ecosystem. This attitude towards the Himalayas has triggered the Joshimath crisis.

In the 19th century, many terrible floods devastated the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people in Switzerland. Between 1850 and 1900, there were nine major floods in the European country, with the most damaging ones in 1850, 1860, 1971, and 1874.

After the flood of 1868, professors Elias Landolt and Carl Culmann of the Swiss Forestry Society convinced the government and public that the devasting floods were the direct consequences of unscientific deforestation and the over-exploitation of forest resources.

The Swiss government enacted a special policy and development strategy for the Swiss mountain ranges. This culminated in the formation of the Swiss National Park in 1914. It was the first national park in Europe, with a total area of about 14,000 hectares (about 34,600 acres).

Some scholars believe that the flood of 1868 changed Switzerland, resulting in the country that suffered from natural disasters in the 19th century being at the top of the global human development index list in 2022. 

Academics and journalists also bring up the two devastating floods in Alaknanda in 1894 and 1970. Floods are a common phenomenon in mountain areas, sometimes with disastrous effects.

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

However, commercial felling of trees continued unabated in the Himalayas, despite the 1894 flood, contrary to what happened in Switzerland. We can condemn the exploitative mindset of the British colonial rule for this.

However, the country was independent during the 1970 floods in Alaknanda. We had our own government elected by the people for the people.

Even an ordinary person from the Alaknanda Valley could trace a direct relation between the massive flood and indiscriminate deforestation. This understanding paved a solid foundation for the world-famous Chipko movement in 1974.

A panel headed by environmentalist and botanist Virendra Kumar was formed to understand the causes and concerns of the Chipko Movement and suggest remedial efforts.

Against the backdrop of the movement, the committee recommended an immediate ban on commercial green felling in the Alaknanda catchment area, which was immediately implemented.

Another committee under the chairmanship of bureaucrat Mahesh Chand Mishra was formed in 1976 to study the landslide possibilities, reasons and consequences in Joshimath.

The Mishra Committee suggested that Joshimath is on very sensitive and fragile moraines. Therefore, there should be a complete ban on any heavy construction work. The committee also suggested remedies like afforestation, developing drainage systems, etc, but these suggestions were never taken seriously.

Mishra Committee suggestions regarding Joshimath were dumped and never given any importance. In contrast, Virendra Kumar’s Committee suggestions were immediately enacted. In the long term, these adversely affected the lives and livelihood of people in the mountain areas.

The Mishra Committee’s suggestions were likely against the commercial interests of the leader-contractor-nexus, so they were never discussed and the massive construction works in the sensitive and fragile area continued.

The underground tunnel of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydro Electric Project has hollowed the area near Joshimath. The blasting and tunnel boring machine may have even punctured the aquifer. The vibrations and weight of military vehicles and tourists’ and pilgrims’ vehicles have posed a challenge to the city’s carrying capacity.

Until a few years ago, large dams were promoted by the government with financial backing from the World Bank. These big dams were submerging large geographical areas, causing a massive displacement. Large dams have been replaced by ‘Run of Rivers’ projects, which are claimed to have minimal adverse effects on the environment, lives and livelihood.

In the ‘Run of Rivers’ project, the water is diverted into tunnels to get enough force to run a turbine for generating electricity. This water goes to the river naturally after a certain distance. It seems like a simple and eco-friendly model.

Nevertheless, the tunnel to be dug for this is a detriment, especially in fragile and sensitive ecosystems of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Ecologists and hydrologists believe Joshimath’s 12-kilometre-long tunnel is the reason for its crisis.

The National Green Tribunal has given clear guidelines for the environmental flows for ‘Run of Rivers’ projects. In an order passed in 2015, the tribunal suggested an average of 15 to 20 per cent of river water should be released back, meaning no part of it should remain dry under any circumstances.

However, these guidelines are openly flouted on the ground. The reality is that the companies take away most of the water and several kilometres of the river remain dry. Thus, the aquatic life and the irrigation for the local farms suffer greatly.

Read more: SC declines to designate Joshimath crisis a national disaster; redirects petitioner to HC

On February 7, 2021, a severe flood in the Dhauliganga caused heavy damage to the under-construction Tapovan hydropower project; more than 200 people were swept away and the tunnel was flooded. The Raini village, the land of the world-famous Chipko movement, also suffered irreversible losses.

Raini village is now fighting a lost war for its survival. Cracks have appeared in houses and fields and this village has been waiting for relocation to a safer place for the last two years.

What were the reasons for this flood? Even after two years, this question is valid and needs attention. Apart from the economic loss, there was no independent scientific assessment of the damage caused to the ecosystem. The Dhauliganga flood is one of the primary reasons for Joshimath suffering today.

Nowadays, heavy construction is going on all around the mountainous region of Uttarakhand. The 889 kilometres of the so-called ‘All Weather Road’ at an estimated cost of Rs 15,000 crore has severely damaged the ecology.

The mountains are being cut straight up to 90 degrees, millions of trees have been chopped, millions of tonnes of debris have been generated and more than 150 new landslide areas have been born in the last four-five years.

The project is in blatant violation of environmental laws. No matter what the government claims, the project was announced in haste for political gains. There was no proper environmental impact assessment before announcing this project.

Even today, no one is assessing or even discussing the damage caused to the ecosystem due to this project. Environmentalists and geologists believe this road project is a canker on the chest of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, which will become destructive with time.

Similarly, the tunnels for the railway project are putting the lives and employment of many villages in danger, water sources have dried up, agricultural yield is decreasing and cracks are appearing in the houses.

But all these things are just a tableau, whereas the problem is very deep-rooted. And due to this problematic thinking, current policies ultimately threaten the Himalayas’ existence. 

Some parts of Uttarakhand’s economy depend on tourism, but it is not the entirety of it. There is a lot. But policymakers need to think or be interested in thinking beyond tourism.

Today, when we talk about policy-making for the Himalayas, especially for Uttarakhand, we must first understand the real reason behind the creation of the state.

The most important reason, other than political justifications, was the need to develop a local development model best suited to the geography and ecology of the hill state, different from the country’s plains.

Read more: Simply Put: Joshimath, the tilted town

But it is a matter of regret that only a carbon copy of the Uttar Pradesh development model was enacted in the newly formed hill state. As a result, the far-flung hilly areas are crying for essential development.

The newly formed Uttarakhand could not develop an organic development model. But it has become a factory for producing ministers and chief ministers.

Today, Joshimath is also warning that we ought to develop a development model based on local conditions and aspirations and we must immediately dump a capital-centric development model.

Read more: 

Prem Bahukhandi is trustee, Friends of Himalaya

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

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