The tragic developments in Joshimath are yet another stern warning from nature to the forces tampering with the Himalayas. This warning is to be taken seriously right from Kashmir and Ladakh to the North East with the rider that ecology, environment, biodiversity and topography of the mountains are not to be tampered with impunity.

With thousands of people facing displacement amid the bitter cold, Joshimath today is justifying the saying, “Man’s pride is humbled by the elements of nature.” It is not that the people were not pointing towards what was coming, but is the same old story of a delayed response in the face of a particular model of development that has left them in the lurch.

The town has been declared a landslide subsidence zone and evacuations have started. The government has now got into action mode even as the people continue to seethe in anger amid helplessness. Those visiting the town say that more and more cracks have been appearing in the buildings every passing day.

Uttarakhand’s chief secretary Dr S.S. Sandhu said on Monday that in view of the developments ‘every minute is important’ and people living in the affected area should be shifted to a safe place without delay. He instructed officials to remain in the area.

Calling for immediate action to prevent toe erosion in the area, Dr Sandhu said that the buildings that have developed cracks and have become dilapidated should be demolished immediately. Experts are being flown in to take stock of the situation and suggest remedial measures.

In Joshimath the people have pointed towards the digging of a tunnel for Tapovan Vishnugad hydro project and the digging on the Helang-Marwadi by-pass road as key factors leading to the sinking of the town and the cracks in the buildings that continue to occur. Work on both has been reportedly stalled.

There are more questions than answers that confront the whole model that has come up around the big hydro power project centred development in the hill states along with the carrying capacity of the hills. The point is that why are lessons not being learnt despite there being regular warnings coming from nature and the local population against establishing huge projects in the fragile Himalayan zone?

Less than two years ago disaster struck Chamoli in the form of a flash flood on February 7, 2021. It killed dozens. The Kinnaur tragedy in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh took place in July the same year in which nine people had died, crushed by boulders rolling down the hill.

It is not that the aware citizens do not flag the dangers as they are the first in line in the face of disasters but every attempt is made to muffle their voices and project them as ‘anti development’. This again raises the pertinent question, ‘Whose development is being promoted at whose cost?” Another question coupled with this that is being raised by the people in Joshimath today is that why are powers that be so ‘insensitive’ to their concerns?

A perspective on this was revealed by social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri to this reporter, “The mathematics is simple. Big projects mean big commissions. In 2008 or 2009 there were protests against a big hydro power project coming up in Arunachal Pradesh amid tall promises and I was compelled to draw parallels that it was like petro dollars promised in the Gulf that people in the hill states would be sailing amid hydro dollars. The question remains: who will sail and benefit? It’s obviously big thekedars (contractors) and big corporations and companies.”

He elaborated saying that the development model being shoved down the people’s throat through these big projects in the hills is the thekedar model. “It is these thekedars who are the political functionaries and leaders today and they do not and cannot think beyond contracts and profits. Concepts like biodiversity, ecology and environment are foreign to them.

“This whole model is an aggressive model that attacks nature. It does not believe in coexistence. It believes in bringing in excavators and heavy machinery to demolish or dig tunnels through blasting. But can you beat nature? You can’t.”

An important observation in this regard had been made in the ‘Fact Finding Report on the Tapovan-Rishiganga Disaster’ of February 2021 that was brought out by the Human Rights Law Network.

It said, “Local activists informed us that there have been various anti-dam organisations and protests over the years in Uttarakhand. These demonstrations, however, were not absolutely against development. The upper Himalayan region needs development, however, the nature of the developmental projects cannot simply mimic the plans for urban spaces.

“The protests were only against big dams; their claim was to strengthen the already existing 16,000 smaller dams. The common discourse of “development” propounded by corporations has to be scrutinised thoroughly.

“Developmental projects should exist with the purpose of helping and empowering the local communities, rather than only benefit existing corporations and urban spaces. Subaltern expressions of developmental needs must not be distorted into statist agenda.”

The report added, “The most imperative question to be asked is who benefits the most from this limitless expansion of projects. When the natural resources and assets of a region are destroyed, rendering the lives of the local populations in complete chaos, how can that be labelled as development?

“The cycle of constructing hydropower projects in Uttarakhand has been repeated numerous times. First the project proponent makes big promises of ‘development’ including assurance of employment and amenities. In public hearings thereafter, when the locals raise concerns their demands are bureaucratically recorded and no heed is paid to them.

“The project proponent then goes back on their claim of employment on the basis of arbitrary standards of ‘qualification’. The states then bulldoze their will on the local populations, and the same pattern continues causing destruction and devastation. The disaster on February 7 was not only a natural disaster but also an incident riddled with corporate negligence.”

A member of this fact finding team PC Tewari told The Citizen, “Why should responsibility and accountability not be fixed on those planning and implementing projects that result in such tragedies. Why should the government not be held responsible? Ultimately it is your policies that allow such projects that are taking a toll on the environment, human life and livelihood.

“You clear projects that do not meet deadlines, cause irreversible damage to the local ecology and economy, overshoot cost estimates and then lead to threats of displacement. It is you who has to answer to the common man who stands at the receiving end.”

The concerned citizens are questioning the cost of such a model of development. “Around two dozen mega projects stand stalled by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The concerns are not heeded to by the political parties because they do not impact votes. They know that votes are cast on religious sentiments and on communal lines.

“Today the location of a 10 km long tunnel in Joshimath is being disputed even as 25000 people are facing displacement. The tunnel is obviously in a direction where water will flow down the gradient. Water does not flow in any other direction. Why can't small projects be set up?

“The Joshimath episode puts a big question mark on the all-weather road being developed on the religious circuit here that will yield maximum landslides,” asserted Dehradun based Jay Singh Rawat who has been chronicling contemporary developments in Uttarakhand even before its inception.

As pointed earlier the issue is not just confined to Uttarakhand. “Even Kinnaur is facing similar issues. The way nature is being tampered with is going to have serious consequences. You cannot put too much stress on areas that comprise glacial deposits and are in high seismic zones.

“Any assault on the topography has a direct bearing on the underground water channels. You have assaulted the Satluj and have not even left its tributaries that flow down the valleys. There is a need to completely have a fresh look at setting up big projects in the Himalayan region if you want habitation to survive,” pointed out Digvijay Negi, a grassroots politician and social activist from the district.

Activist Manshi Asher of HIMDHARA collective stated, “The situation in Himachal is probably worse in terms of vulnerability as the installed capacity is more. The developments of cracks and seepages at places have not made big news because they have been scattered.”

She pointed out another dimension of the issue pertaining to the vulnerability of the population living in the close proximity and vicinity of the big hydro projects as compared to the reservoir or dam projects. “On the latter there is the element of greater acquisition of land. In case of hydro projects there is no direct displacement and villages sit on tunnels. There is no culpability and accountability. There is no scientific correlation being established,” she underlined.

In fact HIMDHARA collective had come out with a landmark dossier on ‘The Hidden Cost of Hydropower’ in 2019 that dealt with environmental hazards and risks of tunnelling, excavation and construction in Run of River hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh.

The document said, “Earthquakes, landslides and flash-floods have been recorded as the top three hazards that Himalayan states, like Himachal Pradesh, are most prone to. As per the vulnerability mapping carried out by the State Disaster Management Authority, 9 of the 12 districts of the state have moderate to very high vulnerability to earthquakes. Nearly 97.42% of the total geographical area of the state is prone to landslide hazards according to the Geological survey of India.

According to researchers, the intensity and frequency of slope failure incidents has been on the rise in the region. The role of anthropogenic factors in exacerbating the natural fragility of the landscape is well recognised.

While construction and expansion of roads is one of the developmental activities that has been acknowledged to have led to further slope disturbances, the proliferation of hydropower projects has not been brought under strict scanner.”

It added, “The role of landslides, land subsidence and floods in damaging hydropower project sites has been the subject of discussion among scientists, policy makers and project proponents but more in view of the delays and increasing costs of these projects.

“In fact, a ‘Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment’ study published by the Himachal government’s Disaster Management Cell found that ‘a huge number of hydropower stations i.e. 67 are under threat of landslide hazard risk… and it was found that 10 Mega hydropower stations are in the medium and high-risk landslide area’.

“If we plot the operational and under construction hydropower projects on Himachal’s vulnerability map we would find that most of the projects fall in the red zone viz. very highly vulnerable to various hazards.

However, there is a serious dearth of scientific studies by government institutions that examine how hydropower projects have contributed to disturbing the fragile geology further, and the human and ecological costs of such damages and hazards. This indicates the misplaced priorities of the government, which is continuing to push and project hydropower as a clean and renewable source of power.”

It explained that during blasting activities, locals often report ‘earthquake-like’ tremors causing ‘rattling of vessels’ in the kitchen. A more visible impact after is in the house structures which show severe cracks, collapses, crevices and deformations. Sometimes, the land caves in gradually and the cracks start showing up after a few years.

Evidence from projects across the Himalayan region indicate that damages to surface structures, especially houses, fields and roads may be classified as one of the major impacts of the underground construction activity. Initially, these impacts were dismissed as coincidental. Scientists have even gone to the extent of blaming these damages to the ‘poor house building practices’, in the region.

The document said that the promise of compensation is made during public hearings when locals raise the issue of probable impacts to houses. “However, when these impacts start showing up and complaints are raised, the response of the authorities is slow or absent until matters are taken to the court or people engage in public protests,” it underlined.

The document also dealt with the issue of such human activity often leading to water scarcity in the hills, particularly due to the drying up of springs and disappearing of water channels. This is something that has been alleged by the people living alongside the four lane road project from Parwanoo to Shimla that is underway.

The document said that the Niti Aayog had commissioned a study to understand the causes of drying up of Himalayan springs and how these could be revived.

“The study highlights that ‘nearly half of the perennial springs have already dried up or have become seasonal’ in the Himalayan belt. While it recognizes larger changes like global warming as a factor affecting groundwater discharge, it also observes that anthropogenic factors and construction activities like hydropower projects have played a role in exacerbating the problem,” it stated.

In areas where villages are located higher up the mountains, the key source of water for domestic uses as well as irrigation are these springs. In Kinnaur, or the upper reaches of Chamba, the farmers would not have been able to practice a profitable occupation like horticulture (growing apples) had these springs not existed.

“The disturbance of underground springs and water aquifers reported mostly by communities in hydro project affected area is considered to be hydro-geological phenomena across the mountain regions. But as recorded by Dr. Ravi Chopra Committee report titled ‘Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects During June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand’, technical experts attribute the drying up of water sources to several other factors. As a result of this the committee had recommended that a scientific study of the same needs to be conducted,” the dossier suggested.

Coming back to the developments in Joshimath, the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti has stated that their movement will continue until equal justice is done to all the displaced people and concrete ground action is seen on the demands aired by them.

Activist Atul Sati has asserted, “The people of the town are undergoing intense mental trauma and would require large scale psychiatric help. There is a need to send a maximum number of doctors to the place to ensure proper mental health of the people.”

He has also been stressing upon the need for more volunteers in the town.

“It was and is our fight to save this beloved city of ours. If the government and the administration had listened to the public in time and taken appropriate action, this situation would not have happened. In spite of continuously talking, writing and fighting on this for the last 14 months, the government did not wake up and today the situation is out of control,” the Samiti said in a statement.

It has called for timely displacement, rehabilitation and stabilisation of Joshimath and has suggested that an empowered high level committee be formed including the Samiti.

“The Sangharsh Samiti again demands, expects and prays to the government that in the hour of this disaster, with a big heart, from a human point of view, rising above the party boundaries, take everyone along and work in the interest of the suffering people. We believe that this major calamity cannot be dealt with only by relying on the administrative machinery. This is the lesson of past disasters as well. We reiterate again and again the proposal to walk shoulder to shoulder and co-operate,” it stated.

Evacuations and Protests - Cracks in Buildings Raise Q’s About Hill ‘Development

Hacking The Environment