After Joshimath, it could be Karnaprayag, Nainital and other Uttarakhand towns next, say experts

Policy interventions are needed on construction work in Himalayan regions to avoid a repeat of Joshimath, according to experts  

By Varsha Singh
Published: Sunday 08 January 2023
After Joshimath, it could be Karnaprayag, Nainital and other Uttarakhand towns next, say experts
The slope in Nainital that suffered a devastating landslide in 1880 during the British Raj, is now dotted with concrete buildings. Photo: Vishal Singh The slope in Nainital that suffered a devastating landslide in 1880 during the British Raj, is now dotted with concrete buildings. Photo: Vishal Singh

Even as Joshimath in Uttarakhand sinks, the same fate could befall other towns across the state, experts have said. Land subsidence is a silent disaster that is taking hold of the Himalayan region, they add.

The towns that could suffer a Joshimath-like fate include Karnaprayag and Gopeshwar in Chamoli district (where Joshimath is situated); Ghansali in Tehri district; Munsiari and Dharchula in Pithoragarh district; Bhatwari in Uttarkashi district; Pauri; Nainital and several other towns, according to experts.

“Continuous land subsidence has been reported from these towns. Streams and springs, which serve as natural discharge channels, have been blocked. Multi-storied buildings have been built. Haphazard construction has been going on without keeping the region’s geographical sensitivity in mind,” SP Sati, geologist at Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, told this reporter.

He added that policy interventions were needed on construction work in Himalayan regions to avoid a repeat of Joshimath.

Karnaprayag, Uttarkashi, Nainital and Pithoragarh

Residents in Chamoli’s Karnaprayag are at their wit’s end after the developments in Joshimath. Pankaj Dimri, who lives in the town’s Bahugunanagar neighbourhood, shared photographs with this reporter that showed cracks in certain houses like Joshimath as well as sunken land underneath some others.

“The town’s population has risen due to an influx of people from neighbouring villages. We do not have natural outlets for discharge. Some houses sink every monsoon. But in 2021, hills near Karnaprayag were cut unscientifically for the Char Dham Project. This caused cracks to develop. Some residents had to abandon their homes,” Dimri said.

A district-level committee examined the cracks. It admitted that the reasons for these as well as land subsidence in Karnaprayag were the widening of roads and the destruction of hills in an unscientific manner for the Project. The cracks have reportedly appeared in areas bordering the town as well.


Damaged house in the town of Karnaprayag, Chamoli district. Photo: Sanjay Maikhuri 

Sukki Top, a village in Uttarkashi that is famous for its apple orchards, is also situated on an unstable slope and is located in the seismically active Zone 5.

The residents of the village, located along the Gangotri Highway in the Harshil Valley, have been fearful about a proposed bypass that they say will destroy their village.

Mohan Singh, an apple farmer, showed copies of the letters he had sent to the state and central governments.

“The proposed bypass is to be built as part of the Char Dham Project by lopping trees in the forest located below the hill where our village lies. This will make the hill even more unstable. The economy of the village and livelihoods of its inhabitants, in addition to the environment, all are in danger,” he added.

In 2019, PL Shah, a district-level official, wrote a letter to the state government. He warned that the cutting of trees in the area would hasten land subsidence in the sensitive region.

Nainital, the storied hill town of the Indian Himalayas, is also heading for a Joshimath-like situation, according to Vishal Singh, director (Research) at the Centre for Ecology Development and Research.

The carrying capacity of the town has not been estimated even as it has experienced several incidents of land subsidence since 1867, when it was an important retreat for officials of the colonial British Raj.

Nainital, which is now bursting at the seams due to an increasing population, influx of tourists and haphazard construction works, has been highlighted time and again by KS Valdiya as well as several other geologists as a town where a major disaster is in the making.

The construction work, that has picked up pace after 2000, can be lethal for the town, according to Singh.

“We have seen what happened in October 2021. The Sher-Ka-Danda area in the town is especially vulnerable to land subsidence. Over 15,000 people live on this unstable slope. Nainital’s highest incline, the Naini Peak, is slipping as is Baliyana. A fault runs right below Naini lake in the town, which lies in Seismic Zone 4,” Singh added.

Pithoragarh district, also in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand like Nainital, has also reported several incidents of land subsidence, especially in Munsiari and Dharchula, which lie in Zone 5.

Piyoosh Rautela, a geologist with the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, has written on this in his research paper A silent disaster in Himalaya.

Garbyang village in Dharchula block, Talla Dhumar and Umli-Bhandari villages in Munsiari block have developed cracks.

“The road near Nachni village in the district has been caving in since the past 20 years. Hills have been wantonly destroyed on the Tanakpur-Dharchula Highway. The debris from these blocks the road every year. There are cracks in several villages, most of which are suffering from land subsidence,” Rajendra Singh Bisht of the district’s Himalayan Gram Vikas Committee told this reporter.

He expressed apprehensions over the extent of the damage that might be caused if projects like the Pancheshwar Dam see the light of day.

Environmentalist Mallika Bhanot said sensitive areas should be marked out in a master plan. Construction work should be undertaken in these areas only on the basis of such a master plan.

She also raised concerns about environmental impact assessments (EIA) in the Himalayas.

“We have to see if a new project will add to the impacts of ongoing works as well as anthropogenic activities in a certain area. A cumulative EIA should be done in such cases. The way EIAs are done at the moment has to change,” Bhanot added.

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