Veteran environmentalist spoke to Down To Earth about the ongoing disaster in Uttarakhand
Veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra. Photo: Jo Chopra McGowan
Since the past one week, a major tragedy has been unfolding in the high Himalayas of Uttarakhand. The historic temple town of Joshimath, the gateway to the shrine of Badrinath, has been witnessing scenes of panic and anger as locals protest the cracks in the area. From houses to temples to commercial establishments, nothing has been spared. The cracks, which began to appear last October, mean that the town is slowly sinking. Locals and environmentalist have blamed the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project and the Helang Bypass Project which have been undertaken near the town. Work on both has been stopped for now.
Ravi Chopra, veteran environmentalist, was in the news last February when he quit as chairman and member of the High Powered Committee (HPC) on the Char Dham Project. He termed the project as ‘an assault on the Himalayas’, among other things.
Down To Earth spoke to Ravi Chopra on the phone following the happenings at Joshimath and what he made of the disaster. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: What are your first reactions to the Joshimath disaster? You had stated last February that an assault on the Himalayas was on. This is surely a vindication of that?
Ravi Chopra: I think that Joshimath is a huge disaster. It is not over. It is still evolving. I still believe that the assault on the Himalayas is on. That is because no effort is being made to undertake economic growth projects in a sustainable and equitable manner. So, you can very much say that this is a vindication of my earlier stand.
RG: What is the basic science involved here? Why is that area experiencing subsidence of such a large magnitude?
RC: Joshimath Hill is located on old, natural landslide debris that has stabilised over hundreds of years. What that means is there is a huge, thick layer several hundred to a thousand metres deep which rests on certain rocks.
It is located within the region of the Main Central Thrust (MCT). So, the rocks inside that are supporting this layer are themselves weakened as they have been thrust up. They have fractures and crushed material and are themselves not very strong.
This is an area that has been known to be a sensitive slope. In fact, way back in 1976, the government-appointed MC Mishra Committee had already warned that construction work should be avoided, particularly along the toe of the hill, because of its sensitive nature.
Despite that, the government decided to go ahead with various types of developmental works, including a tunnel through the mountains and a new bypass road, the Helang-Marwadi Bypass Road.
RG: Why do you think the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project was given the go-ahead?
RC: The government wants rapid economic growth which requires quick exploitation of commercial energy. Hence, it started the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project.
It is unwilling to look at sustainable alternatives and to question its own vision in the context of the growing climate crisis. There is also a very strong dam-building lobby that is at work. So that is probably the reason as to why they are pushing ahead with hydropower projects.
As far as the Helang-Marwadi Bypass is concerned, it is part of the Char Dham Project. The HPC had looked at it very carefully and had felt that it would hurt the economy of the town if tourists were to bypass the town.
So, the Committee had proposed that the north-bound traffic to Badrinath should go through the town so that the local economy suffers only minimal losses. The returning traffic from Badrinath could come via the bypass. This would reduce pressures on the slope.
The government had wanted to build a 10-metre-wide road for two-way traffic. The HPC had recommended that it be narrowed. It also suggested that a careful geological, geophysical and geotechnical investigation be done before beginning any work since the location was at the toe of the hill.
As far as the Tapovan-Vishnugad project is concerned, the committee that I had headed in 2013 and 2014, had recommended that no dams be built in the paraglacial zones, above the MCT. The Tapovan-Vishnugad Project should have been cancelled and none of the dams on the Dhauliganga and the Rishiganga, upstream of Joshimath, should have been built. If they had listened to us, the February 2021 and the Joshimath disasters could have been avoided.
RG: The Uttarakhand Himalayas are sensitive and fragile, as is the entire range. They are also the wellspring of a number of landmark environmental movements. Why then have the Uttarakhand Himalayas been opened to ‘development’?
RC: It is the job of a government to bring about equitable development. You can’t ignore a region of the country especially when there are people living there. But the development should be sustainable within the context of the region’s ecology, geography and cultural features.
But as I have said earlier, the government is bent on rapid economic growth in which neither Nature nor people matter.
RG: You had implied in your letter last February that humanity considers Nature to be the object of its conquest. What should be done to change this perception?
RC: The standard answer to this question is to make people aware and sensitise them through education. But I think it is too late for that now, especially in this region.
Nature has decided that enough is enough. It will not accept any more desecration and it will impose its own solutions. The ensuing disasters will force people to become more sensitive towards preserving Nature.
RG: What will those ensuing disasters be?
RC: Development works do not have to be stopped. They have to be done thoughtfully and carefully so that they can be sustainable.
But if it is business-as-usual, there will be an acceleration of disasters brought about by climate change, including destabilisation of slopes, forest fires, loss of wildlife and ultimately, ill-health of the people.
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