Who is responsible for the Joshimath tragedy?

Recently, Uttarakhand’s Raini village was in news and now, the nearby Joshimath is in the news. At present, the administration is trying to resettle people from there to safer places and experts are looking into the causes of the problem from their own understanding. Most believe that unplanned urbanization and exploitation of natural resources are the factors of this development.

Commenting on this, Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Assistant Associate Professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business and lead author of the IPCC report, says, “Joshimath is a very sobering reminder of the way we treat our environment. Messing up to the extent that is irreversible. Climate change is becoming a reality.

The Joshimath problem has two aspects, the first is the large scale infrastructure development that is taking place in a very fragile ecosystem like the Himalayas and it will help protect the environment as well as bring infrastructure to the millions of people living in those areas. Much of the planning process has been happening without enabling us to do so. And second, climate change is a force multiplier. The way climate change is unfolding in some of India’s hill states is unprecedented. For example, 2021 and 2022 have been disaster years for Uttarakhand.

Several climate risk events such as high rainfall events triggering landslides have been recorded. We must first understand that these areas are very fragile and small changes or disturbances in the ecosystem will lead to serious disasters, which is what we are seeing in Joshimath. In fact, it is a special point in history that needs to be remembered for what needs to be done and what needs to be done in the Himalayan region. I am sure that the Joshimath subsidence was caused by the hydroelectric project which was underway in the construction of the tunnel and was a major cause of concern for the residents.

This has shown that the water that has flowed out is from a fractured area that has been punctured by the tunnel and that has been leading to the catastrophic condition in which we are today. This is also in the pretext of many reports in the past. I would like to cite two IPCC reports published in 2019 and 2022 which critically observed that the region is very vulnerable to disasters. This means that a very robust planning process must be followed.

In fact, the entire planning should be done on a bio-regional scale which should include what is allowed and what is not and should be implemented very strictly. I am not against bringing infrastructural development for the people as these are places of tourist interest. I understand the fact that the people of these places here have no other means of survival considering their religious place. But it has to be done in a planned manner. We must give up some things and look for other ways of producing energy. The return on investment cost in hydropower projects is very low compared to the costs associated with environmental and ecological damage. Joshimath is a clear example of what not to do in the Himalayas.

On the same lines, Atul Satti, a local environmental activist, says, “In the last few years, the inflow of tourists has increased manifold. Roughly counting, the state used to host around 6 lakh tourists per year which has now increased to more than 15 lakh. Along with this, there has been an increase in vehicular pollution, river pollution, construction activities and commercialization. The construction of hydroelectric projects and road widening activities have had a major impact on the region. All these factors have contributed to the change in the rainfall pattern as well as the rise in temperature. Now we see continuous rain for 2-3 days in a row, while many more days remain dry. In addition, snowfall between 20–25 December was a prominent feature in the Joshimath region during the 1980s and 90s. But this has changed over the years, and sometimes there is no snowfall at all in this area.”

The IPCC’s fifth assessment report cycle concluded that human influence on the climate system is “clear”. Since then, the literature on attribution – the subfield of climate science that looks at how (and to what extent) human activities cause climate change – has expanded significantly. Today, scientists are more certain than ever that climate change is caused by us. A recent study found that humans are the cause of all the warming seen since pre-industrial times, leaving no room for debate as to why the climate is changing. Since AR5, there has also been a focus on regional impacts, with scientists improving their models and understanding of the regional-scale picture of global climate change impacts.

Cost of unplanned development

The Himalayas are young and naturally fragile. This creates cracks and fractures in the rock which may widen in the future and create rockfall/slope failure zones. Experts believe that anthropogenic interference has made it worse. Be it the development of hydroelectric power plants, development of tunnels or planning of roads. The Parrot Canyon example is a warning to us that if stable, hard rock canyon slopes are not critically scrutinized for geological fragility, slope instability with unprecedented effects on the landscape can arise. Slope failure is a phenomenon in which a slope collapses suddenly due to weak self-support of the earth under the influence of rain or earthquake.

Blasting in mountains not only weakens the slope along the road, but the blast and vibration impulses from the heavy excavation are likely to be transmitted upwards. Therefore, geologists strongly recommend a critical assessment of geological and structural stability before subjecting mountains to large-scale mechanical excavation and blasting.

Professor YP Sundriyal, Head, Geology, HNB Garhwal University, said, “The High Himalayas are climatically and tectonically highly sensitive, so much so that the construction of mega hydro-projects should be avoided in the first place. Or else they should be of small capacity. Second, the construction of roads should be done with all scientific techniques. At present, we are seeing that roads are being built or widened without taking proper measures like slope stability, good quality retaining walls and rock bolting. All these measures can reduce the damage caused by landslides to some extent.

Pro. Sundriyal added, “There is a huge gap between planning and implementation. For example, rainfall patterns are changing, with extreme weather events increasing in temperature. Policy makers should be well versed with the geology of the region. The fact of development cannot be denied but hydro power plants, especially in the higher Himalayas, should be of low capacity. Policy and project implementation should involve local geologists who understand the terrain well, and how it reacts.”

The 520 MW Tapovan-Vishugad project owned by NTPC was washed away in heavy floods on February 7 and caused a loss of around Rs 1500 crore. Apart from this, the 444 MW Pipal Koti hydroelectric project of the state government-run THDC India Limited, the 400 MW Vishnuprayag project owned by the Jaypee Group and the 130 MW Rishi Ganga project of the Kundan Group were also damaged in the Chamoli disaster.

For a long time, the water-rich state of Uttarakhand has been trying to convert its rivers into wealth. In fact, a representative from Uttarakhand told a parliamentary committee set up after the February 7 Chamoli disaster that ‘solar power, wind power or any other form of renewable energy will always be in short supply’. For us, as a state in the Himalayas, hydro is our main stake.’ This doctrine has undermined environmental clearance processes and risk assessment criteria for hydropower projects in the Himalayas.

Manju Menon, Senior Fellow, Center for Policy Research, said, “The renewable energy (RE) tag is a tool for the financial elite and energy capital to create new investment opportunities in the hydropower sector. In an effort to attract investment from the private sector, which has been reluctant to venture into “remote” Himalayan locations, government agencies are set to build “enabling infrastructure” at public cost. The Parliamentary Committee report is a classic example of how the opportunistic use of RE and the growth of private hydro-finance overtake the assessment of the social and environmental risks of dams. Although the committee’s report recorded that “geographical surprises” resulting from weak Himalayan geology, “lack of technology or expertise, natural calamities such as landslides, floods and cloudbursts etc. pose serious constraints to construction programmes”, the committee noted these Not seen as problems that require in-depth investigation. Instead, the report focuses on reducing the financial risk to existing and potential dam-builders.”

“The social and environmental risks of large dams are well documented. Himalayan river experts have been warning about these risks for decades, but unfortunately the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for these projects hides or downplays this information in order to get the projects approved. Given all these perceived risks, development and environmental policies should not actually choose options that put people at great risk. This is the moment for all our decision-makers in state governments, courts and parliament to review their support for Himalayan dams,” Manju Menon added.

Furthermore, the latest addition to the list of risks for the region is the association of cloudbursts with wildfires. A joint study was conducted by Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna (HNB) Garhwal University and IIT Kanpur, which found – “First surface measurement of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) variation over the undisturbed Himalayan region of Garhwal, Uttarakhand”. The study found a link between the formation of tiny particles, the size of a cloud droplet, on which water vapor condenses to form clouds and wildfires. Peaks in the amount of such particles, called CCN, were found to be associated with wildfire events. The highest CCN concentration (3842.9 ± 2513 cm−3) values of the entire observation period were observed in May 2019. It was strongly affected by heavy fire activity in Uttarakhand and the surrounding Indo-Gangetic plains.

People with low carbon footprint most affected
The increase in these natural calamities has created fear among the local people of Raini village. The flash floods in February had not only wreaked havoc in terms of loss of life and property but also disrupted the air highway leading to the international border. After this, the Border Roads Organization (BRO) has constructed a road just above the village which they are further planning to make a national highway. It is being told that this road of 40 meters length and 10 meters width has been built on the agricultural land of Raini village.

Geologists have declared this area unsuitable for human habitation. Due to all these developments, the villagers are demanding permanent resettlement to some other place where they can feel safe. Reportedly, the state authorities have identified Subhai village, which is about 5 km down south from Raini, for their resettlement. However, this will be no easy task.

According to district officials, land is a limited commodity and due to this relocation of villages is not an easy task. “Relocating a group of people to another place also has an impact on irrigation, grazing and farming land, which is then divided among a large number of people. So, we will try to shift the affected families within a radius of 300-500 metres, so that they do not face difficulties,” said Nand Kishor Joshi, disaster management officer of Raini village.

As per the Uttarakhand state’s resettlement policy, the villagers are likely to get a compensation of Rs 360,000 and allotment of 100 square feet of land. However, the locals claim that the administration is not doing enough for the people. Many locals complain about the lack of timely administrative action and complain that the land and monetary compensation provided is not enough to start afresh at a new location.

“Villagers have to fight a long battle for rehabilitation. Initially, the local administration wanted us to shift to a temporary site in a primary school, but that was without our cattle. If something happens to our cattle then who will bear the loss. Now, they have decided to shift us to a place near Subhai village, but as we have seen in other cases, the space allotted to us is very less. Along with this, we are afraid that this decision may remain only on paper. Monsoon has arrived and we are spending every night fearing whether we will survive till tomorrow,” said Sanju Kaparwan, a local from Raini village.

Hundreds of people across the state are still struggling for land that they have lost or that was washed away in floods, frequent landslides and incessant rains. In fact, activists feel that Raini is lucky to have seen the prompt response of the authorities.

Thousands of villagers in the state of Uttarakhand are waiting for their turn for rehabilitation. Reportedly, 395 villages have been identified in disaster-prone areas of 12 districts of Uttarakhand, waiting to be shifted to safer areas. The entire process is likely to cost Rs 10,000 crore. Pithoragarh district has the highest number of 129 villages, followed by Uttarkashi 62, Chamoli 61, Bageshwar 42, Tehri 33, Pauri 26, Rudraprayag 14, Champawat 10, Almora 9, Nainital 6, Dehradun 2 There are villages and there is 1 in Udham Singh Nagar.

Safety Issues Versus Avoiding Disasters

Uttarakhand shares a long border with the neighboring countries of China and Nepal, making it a geopolitically sensitive place. While China has a 350 km border with Uttarakhand, Nepal shares a 275 km long border with the state. Of the 13 districts in the state, five are border districts. China shares border with Chamoli and Uttarkashi, while Nepal shares border with Udham Singh Nagar and Champawat. Meanwhile Pithoragarh shares borders with both China and Nepal. Ongoing tensions and territorial disputes with neighboring countries only add to the Himalayan state’s vulnerability and the complexity of relocating its villages, making it all the more important to strengthen the state’s infrastructure and livability.

Rani’s proximity to the border with China has increased its importance as well as its vulnerability. The widening and regular repair or construction of roads near or within the village cannot be stopped at any cost. According to officials, roads from Raini village connect a dozen border villages in Chamoli district. Most recently, torrential rains on June 14 destroyed a large section of the road, disrupting communication with troops on the border.

Prof. Sundriyal said, “This matter is of prime concern and always needs immediate attention. It cannot be denied that we need to strengthen our infrastructure keeping national security in mind. But we need to ensure that while widening the roads at such a height, the slope stability and good quality retaining walls are taken care of to avoid landslides.”