The Joshimath crisis cannot be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ even if the powers that be want it that way. The agony of the residents of Joshimath seems to have faded from the news lists of mainstream media.

However, the fact remains that the people of Joshimath continue to fight for a decent relief and rehabilitation in the face of the massive land subsidence that made headlines across the globe in January this year. On Thursday, the ongoing dharna of which the women have been major participants will complete 100 days.

According to the locals, there has been little headway in terms of their relief and rehabilitation. Reports say that there has been cash disbursement to the affected people but the observers point out that the larger questions related to the whole episode and the lopsided model of development being shoved down the throats of the people remain unanswered.

They say that Joshimath is just another addition to the series of disasters that the state has witnessed over decades in the face of lack of political will, seriousness and greed of a few at the cost of the people.

The issue has once again emerged from the backdrop in the event of the annual Chardham Yatra scheduled to start later this month. Since Joshimath is the gateway to Badrinath and also to the Sikh pilgrimage centre of Hemkund Sahib, the authorities do not want any obstruction to the pilgrim and tourist inflow that obviously brings in revenue.

During his recent visit to the region to inaugurate a marathon competition, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami claimed that the pilgrim and tourist arrival is expected to break all records. He tried to hard sell Joshimath and Auli as perfectly safe zones.

He reportedly said that contrary to the atmosphere and perception of fear that was being created about the disaster at Joshimath, there is normalcy there.

His visit came in the shadow of the agitating locals giving a call to block the Badrinath highway on April 27 if there is no headway on the demands that have been raised since the cracks appeared in the roads and numerous buildings that were later declared unsafe.

“It was only after the threat was issued that the Chief Minister gave an assurance. The assurance came after a long silence all these days. We will be meeting on April 14 to assess whether the promises made have seen some translation on the ground or not. It is after this assessment that a decision will be taken whether to go ahead with the previously announced programme or not. Things have to be visible on the ground,” said Atul Sati of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. He has been spearheading the movement of the masses for proper relief and rehabilitation.

“There is no planning, policy and direction visible in the context of the government measures. We all know that things have moved far ahead of Joshimath as similar disasters of land subsidence have been reported from several places. This was an opportunity where relief and rehabilitation operations in Joshimath could have been a pilot project. It is a well known act that relief and rehabilitation of this scale takes years to be completed. But nothing has been done in that direction. There is nothing visible on the ground at that level,” Sati told The Citizen.

The activists have been warning from day one that the entire effort is towards making the tragedy vanish from the public narrative as soon as possible. They have been telling the people that theirs is a long battle since things would slow down drastically once their plight vanishes from the television screens and headlines of the mainstream media.

“It is a tried and tested strategy of the authorities to make people forget such instances and let things take a routine course. The authorities always want the people to tire out so that they have to shell out minimum relief. But here people are fighting and are in no mood to give up.

“Their resilience has paid some dividends as well. The political class always tries to divert the attention of the masses from such pressing real issues,” said social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri who has been associated with the people’s movement at Joshimath.

In the memorandum that the agitating people submitted to Dhami during his visit on April 8, they raised the all important issues of making public the scientific investigations that were undertaken on land subsidence in Joshimath. They said the investigations carried out by eight premier institutes must be made public in a transparent manner as it is very important to dispel the doubts that persist in the minds of the common people.

Veteran Dehradun based observer S.M.A. Kazmi who has witnessed several disasters in the state right from its inception said, “The findings of these scientific investigations have to be the basis of the rehabilitation and framing a road map for the future. It is a fact that apart from the high seismic activity being reported in the region and the increasing instances of cloud bursts, there is a human generated disaster that has been continuing unabated in the state.

“The urban planning remains pathetic with high rises coming up in the fragile strata without any control. There is simply no political will to make the state a safe place. One cannot even imagine the extent of damage that will occur if there is a high intensity earthquake in the region.

“Come to think of it, warning bells had been sounded about Joshimath way back in 1976 and yet things were allowed to continue till this subsidence hit.”

He further reminded about the apprehensions that the locals have about the all weather Chardham road project and the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail project.

Talking in context of making the scientific investigations public it needs to be recalled that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had reportedly issued an order asking government officials and institutions to ‘not interact with media and share data on social media regarding ground subsidence at Joshimath’.

This ‘gag order’ had followed headlines in several papers saying that Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had reported that Joshimath had witnessed vertical sinking of 5.4cm between December 27, 2022, and January 8, 2023.

Coming back to the Joshimath disaster, Social Development for Communities (SDC) Foundation that has started an initiative to document the natural disasters in the state has stated in its update for the month of March that as compared to the months of January and February 2023, the situation in Joshimath in March 2023 appeared to be comparatively less volatile.

“The biggest issues coming out of Joshimath in March 2023 related to compensation for rehabilitation and the need for housing for those families that were impacted due to the sinking phenomenon,” the Foundation stated.

Referring to media reports it said that relief funds were disbursed to only 10% affected families. “Over two months after the Uttarakhand government sanctioned Rs 45 crores as immediate relief for the people of subsidence affected Joshimath, the process of disbursement of relief money is proceeding at a snail's pace.

“Till now the government has distributed Rs 8.3 crores as one time settlement under the Joshimath rehabilitation policy to 31 families, which is just around 10% of the total identified families that are affected. Affected families are also being forced to run from pillar to post to get necessary no objection certificates (NOCs) and clearances for seeking monetary relief under the rehabilitation policy,” the update stated.

It further stated that residents are apparently being asked to get 12 NOCs from banks in Joshimath, Jal Sansthan, electricity department and municipality regarding house construction. The residents have further claimed that the process of applying and getting the compensation money under the rehabilitation policy has become strenuous.

“Apart from relief distribution, the prefabricated houses being made to accommodate affected families in Joshimath have not received much response from the residents of Joshimath. Till March 20, 2023 only five 2BHK houses had been made in Dhak by the Rural Works Department of the state government,” stated the document.

“The construction of the Helang-Marwari by-pass under the Chardham all weather project which was suspended by the Chamoli administration in the first week of January 2023 following the aggravation of the Joshimath land crisis continues to remain in limbo for nearly three months.

“The concerned authorities are still waiting for the report of IIT Roorkee to decide if the restart of the bypass project would aggravate the land crisis problem,” it added.

Social activist Anoop Nautiyal who is with the SDC Foundation had tweeted in context of the slow pace of the construction of the prefabricated housing, “Its3 months since Jan 5 when @ChamoliDm issued below order asking @ntpclimited & HCC to make 2000 prefabricated homes each for #Joshimath residents. If companies are not making prefab homes, why not ask them to extend financial relief? Lots of support still needed, plz advise!”

Meanwhile, several civil society organisations along with concerned citizens from across the country under the banner of Campaign to Defend Nature and People (CDNP) have come out with a strong statement on the issue saying that the Joshimath disaster is an ‘inevitable result of long neglect of scientific warnings, of gross financialization of nature and total lack of environmental and social safeguard policies’.

It has underlined that gross commercialisation of the geologically complex and tectonically active Himalayas for both ‘religious and nature tourism’, without any consideration of 'carrying capacities' was encouraged and massive construction in the town was allowed in the name of economic growth, with large and heavy hotels and other construction booming.

The document highlights the ‘total failure of responsible governance and accountability of investment’ in spite of all these being common knowledge for about 50 years now.

“Major land destabilising infrastructure projects like the ‘Chardham all weather road’, the ‘Vishnugad hydroelectric project’ etc were given environmental clearance and carried out with total disregard to safety, accelerating the disaster,” the signatories have stated.

The document reminds that the 1976 MC Mishra Committee with 18 experts from specialised agencies that was constituted by the then government, made very clear observations about most of these vulnerabilities. “It clearly warned against heavy construction activities, removing base boulders, disturbing the underlying soil etc.

“Yet, those 'prohibited' activities are exactly those that both National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and 'Chardham road' violated. Thus they are directly responsible for the current disaster, along with successive governments of Uttarakhand and the centre,” it states.

The signatories have hit out at the investments in unsustainable hydro power projects calling it a cause for major concern in the complex Himalayan ecology. They have once again underlined that while Joshimath is in the news cycle right now, it is by no means an aberration. To throw caution to wind at the altar of development and growth has in fact become the norm.

“The complex topography of the Himalayas from Himachal Pradesh to Sikkim bears the risks of such mindless play of dice. One of the causal factors that stand out for such a disaster, even the government's own experts agree, is the Tapovan – Vishnugad hydroelectric power project located below the major city!

“While a lot is being talked about today in terms of emergency measures, rehabilitation and demolition, not much is being said about how this came about? Or more importantly how did such rampant construction get the requisite clearances? Or who in fact is funding such projects? Where is the money coming from?” they questioned.

The CDNP members have stated that the construction started at the hydroelectric power project in 2006 with an estimated cost of Rs. 29,785 Million (USD 677 Million) and was scheduled to be commissioned in 2012. After the destruction of the 2013 and 2021 floods washing away the constructions, the project was scheduled to be commissioned this year.

The project has already been delayed and carries a Rs. 1500 crore loss due to the delays! Despite being in a highly seismic and ecologically complex Himalayan area the project got environment and forest clearances in 2004. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report submitted by the NTPC mentions Uttarakhand is a seismically active state classed under seismic zones IV and V on the Seismic Zoning Map of India.

Its assessment of impacts focuses on four major components: hydrology that focuses only on the reduced river flow between barrage, aquatic ecosystems focusing on prevention of upstream fish movement, land resources on the loss of agricultural and forest land and the resettlement of 57 households.

Even though the EIA claims to have done a detailed assessment of the land, soil and impacts, it does not take into account the impact of the construction process on the geology and ecology of the place, particularly since it is a landslide prone area.

“Even after the constructions were washed away in the 2013 and 2021 floods, the project was not stalled or stopped but continued construction once again! Nor does it take into account the now prophetic directions of the Mishra Committee. The EIA in fact justifies the project on the ground of its contribution to growth and the need for clean energy while giving a blind eye to its not so clean consequences,” they stated.

The signatories laid emphasis on the need for robust environmental and social safeguards in development finance, an issue that has to be high on the priority. They have pointed out that the fact that such unviable and unsustainable projects get clearance goes on to show the problems around implementation even as some of these multinational development banks claim to have environmental and social safeguards in place.

“What it also shows is the sorry state of affairs when it comes to our own banks that have no such safeguards in place when it comes to development lending. A slew of Indian financial institutions have their fingers in the pie!” The statement concludes stating that such disasters are rude reminders of “the mindless model of development that is being forced down on us financed by our own institutions”.

The signatories have demanded immediate stalling of the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro project, a review and reduction of all major projects in the Himalayan region and have stressed upon the need for environment and social safeguards policy for Indian financial institutions.

Coming back to the people who are protesting while seeking proper relief and rehabilitation, it needs to be understood that they have spent the entire harsh winter conditions in deep anxiety as they braved freezing temperatures spending nights in temporary abodes.

There is a sense of anguish among the people who feel that despite the fact that the underlying causes of the disaster are well known for about 50 years now, the recommendations and warnings by earlier expert committees have been violated with impunity.

They point out that it is a well known fact that Joshimath town sits on the loose debris of a landslide. This should be a reason in itself not to allow haphazard construction to take place.

The people feel that the whole development model in the Himalayan zone needs to take into account the geomorphologic fragility of the Himalayas and the ongoing high seismic activity.

Cover File Photograph