The Joshimath land subsidence continues to evoke sharp reactions from the sections of the society that are concerned about the lurking dangers across the fragile Himalayan belt. There is growing worry about the communities in these areas being forced to carry the burden of the model of development which they disapprove of in context of their own lives and livelihoods.

In a latest development more than 125 organisations, environmentalists and concerned citizens have issued a strong statement saying that Joshimath is not a natural disaster. They stated that the state must accept responsibility for continued negligence, despite red flags being raised, and ensure proper rehabilitation for displaced people.

The statement calls for following precautionary principle and putting a halt to the destructive mega constructions. Expressing solidarity with families facing displacement due to the massive land subsidence, the statement demands accountability and justice in the Joshimath crisis.

“The tragedy unfolding in Joshimath has once again forced us to accept and believe that the spate of disasters we are witnessing in the Himalayas are certainly not ‘natural’ but constructed in the era of modern capitalist development,” the signatories have stated.

Narrating the history of the current Joshimath crisis, beginning from the 50-year-old M.C. Mishra Committee report of 1976 that had warned of the geological sensitivity of the region, to the repeated oversights by the governments and administration that allowed mega tourism, road expansion and hydropower projects in the last two decades, the statement highlights the ‘historical’ failings of various authorities.

It has been pointed out that Joshimath falls in the upper reaches of the Ganga river Basin which is vulnerable to climatic events and has seen two big disasters in the last ten years, Kedarnath in 2013 and Chamoli, which occurred in February 2021.

The statement has hit out at the gagging of dissemination of scientific and transparent information about Joshimath.

“Within days of the disaster’s unfolding the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released images indicating that Joshimath had been seeing land subsidence for months and that it had sunk close to 5 cm in a matter of days in the early part of January.

“This could have been followed up with more regular official and public scientific accounts of what was happening in Joshimath but what we had instead was a gag order by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) – banning scientists associated with government institutions from releasing information around the disaster.

“The NDMA should have by now come out with a clear rehabilitation and disaster response plan under legal provisions, to be executed before the monsoons which will increase the threat of further subsidence and landslide,” the statement said.

It called out the deliberate attempts of the state government to normalise the crisis as well as the apathy of the central government.

“When there is enough scientific evidence of correlations and the risks associated with such construction in young seismically active Himalayan geology – why cannot the courts take suo moto action in this matter to ensure that this is done in a timely manner and all gag orders are lifted to put the extent of the risk in the public domain so that justice to the impacted people is ensured?” the signatories have asked.

Most of the signatories are from different regions of the Himalayan belt. It has been stated, “There isn’t an iota of doubt that the story of Joshimath is actually part of the novel written out for the entire Himalayan region.

“If justice is denied to the people of Joshimath today, there is no hope for securing justice anywhere in the Himalayas today and tomorrow. In the name of national interest, development, green energy and holy lands the top down Parvatmala policies will tie us into a thread of destructive and extractive projects from airports, to highways, dams and commercial tourist centres.

“This does not reflect the vision nor the voice of the diverse communities inhabiting the mountains for whom the question is of their survival.”

Activists from Arunachal Pradesh have also raised their voice at different intervals and have tried to draw the attention of the masses to the vulnerabilities of these areas and the threats to the people living there. Being sparsely populated and not having much political say, their voices have often been muffled.

In Ladakh, a five-day fast by activist Sonam Wangchuk was supported by the people having various political and social affiliations.

As has been pointed out by the activists of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti on numerous occasions, the powers that be often wait for the media attention on such instances to tire and die down. Thus, the same story gets repeated again somewhere else. It is in this context that the statement that has come out is important.

It has been rightly described as a tragedy that will go down in contemporary Himalayan history, its trauma reverberating not just with the people of the entire region but across generations. Everyone residing in the region who lives in areas that have seen such disasters in the last few years, or is living under the threat of such displacement, can relate to the distress and fear that the people of Joshimath are spending their days and nights under.

After Joshimath hit international headlines, there have been reports about cracks developing in the buildings and terrain at several places not only in Uttarakhand but other states as well.

The statement strongly points out, “It is time that we stop fooling ourselves with myths and legends of nature’s wrath and blame fury of the gods and start facing the demons that exist in the form of our economic and political systems of governance that have brought upon us these losses.”

While accusing the authorities of turning a blind eye to the facts around Joshimath right from the time close to 50 years ago when the then commissioner of Garhwal M.C. Mishra in an official report had warned of the geological conditions of Joshimath and made recommendations for regulation on construction activity. It also mentioned protective measures in the region; the concerned citizens have particularly hit out at the façade of ‘natural disaster’ and ‘all is well’.

“While the current issue of widening cracks in the homes of Joshimath residents was picked up by the national media only around late December 2022, it was brought to the notice of the administration a couple of months ago, but the authorities turned a blind eye. It was when ‘Joshimath Sinking’ started trending in the social media that the district administration jumped into action.

“In the last month or so, 850 homes have been marked with the ‘red cross’ that is now etched in our minds and close to 3000 people have been evacuated. Alternative arrangements have been made for shelters in hotels with temporary relief for those who have nowhere to go. As per reports close to 30% of the town stands affected and virtually displaced and there seems to be a growing trend of cracks in the affected area,” it has been stated.

The signatories have suggested that today when the displaced people of Joshimath are helplessly watching their life long savings being lost, running helter skelter to register their complaints and looking for shelter, carrying out demonstrations for their legitimate concerns, the Central government should have jumped into action to hold the agencies responsible for the disaster accountable making them first pay for the compensation and arranging relief.

The NDMA should have by now come out with a clear rehabilitation and disaster response plan under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act 2005 as is being sought by the protesters, to be executed before the monsoons which will increase the threat of further subsidence and landslide.

The question that has been vociferously highlighted is that ‘who is to be held accountable?’

“When the so-called development projects are used to fill up company and state coffers, it is common sense that people who have borne the losses and been put to risk as a result of these developments must be considered as project affected and rehabilitated and compensated fully from this.

“The government must uphold the precautionary principle as well as the polluter pays principle and any rehabilitation plan must invoke the applicable central laws - the Disaster Management Act 2005 and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013,” the statement reads.

It has been articulated once again that the model of development forced on the communities neither reflects the vision nor the voice of the diverse people, especially the women, dalits and indigenous, inhabiting the mountains for whom this development is spelling more doom.

“The cost benefit analysis of this development agenda now stands amply visible which is why the people are seeking accountability. If these voices remain unheard a wider struggle to assert our constitutional rights will have to be built,” it has been stated.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Joshimath remains chaotic with the people continuing to be anxious and confused about their immediate future as well as their long term prospects. There is a lot of uncertainty and a clear sense of loss.

The dharna at the Tehsil premises continue with people from each ward taking turns to turn up to raise their voice. The turnout continues to be heavy with hundreds joining in the protest on a daily basis. Women in particular are making their presence felt through high participation.

Sources on the ground say that even if the people who have lost their houses after being marked unsafe want to move to rental accommodation, there is a dearth in terms of availability.

Atul Sati of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti said that a large number of people have moved from hotels and dharamshalas where they were being put up by the administration to the rental accommodation. In his daily live update on social media he accused the administration of being inclined to see people moving out of the camps.

“The people are disillusioned as they do not know how they will be compensated for the loss of their land and house and what is the policy for their rehabilitation?” he said while echoing the public anger at the slow pace of work by the authorities in this direction.

He said the Samiti has decided to intensify the agitation further in terms of traffic blockade and carrying out torchlight processions.

“The whole approach of the government is to address the issue piecemeal while not drawing any plans to address the problem holistically for a long term solution,” pointed out social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri.

Sources on the ground point out that in order to prevent a boulder from falling, two iron poles have been erected with a slant and this causing further anxiety to the onlookers.

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said in a programme at Dehradun last week that Joshimath region has been facing disaster for the last one month and the top priority of the state government is to provide all possible help to the affected people.

He said that instructions have been given to all the concerned officers to ensure that the affected people do not face any kind of difficulty and their problems should be resolved immediately on priority.

He claimed that various institutions of the central and state governments are involved in the geological and other investigations of the area around Joshimath and soon a concrete action plan will be worked out in this regard. He further claimed that efforts are also being made to find a permanent solution for the rehabilitation of the affected.

Dhami said that planned development of the area is the priority of the government and work has to be undertaken in this direction so that Joshimath which has cultural, religious and strategic importance should be safe and returns to its old form while ensuring the conduct of the forthcoming Char Dham Yatra in a well-planned manner.

Dhami added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was constantly seeking information about the situation in Joshimath. He said that so far 270 families have been kept in relief camps while the central and state governments are trying to ensure better arrangements in the interest of the victims.

Dhami said that only a limited area of Joshimath is affected by landslides and it is not right to create an atmosphere of insecurity about the entire Joshimath. The Char Dham Yatra is to start after four months and at such a time, the message should not go out that the entire Joshimath area is unsafe. The CM said the endeavour should be to send out a message of safe Uttarakhand to the country and the world.

The activists are now pointing out that the high vulnerability of Uttarakhand to disasters cannot be taken lightly any more. They are referring to a report ‘Uttarakhand Disaster Risk Assessment’ that was brought out by the state government in collaboration with some international agencies following surveys carried out between 2016 and 2019.

The report says that Uttarakhand is prone to natural hazards mainly caused by water, (floods, flash floods, heavy precipitation, avalanches, landslides, droughts, hail, lightning, glacial lake outburst floods), as well as cold waves and earthquakes.

“Especially in recent years, Uttarakhand has become known for the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters caused by a wide range of natural and (to a much lesser extent) industrial hazards. The state is especially prone to geological hazards, such as earthquakes and landslides, as it falls in the highest seismic risk zone in the country, but also experiences frequent floods, epidemics, fires, hailstorms, lightning, road accidents, etc.,” the report underlines.

An important point made in the report is, “Vulnerability or susceptibility of a physical region or its society to natural hazards is essentially the result of the prevailing conditions, which are often the consequences of the development pattern and practices. Therefore, the development practices play a very important role in determining the vulnerability of a society or land to natural hazards.

“Development and disaster have a very close and multi-dimensional relationship. The relationship between disaster and development is very clearly visible in the Uttarakhand region.

“After the formation of the state, developmental activities have been speeded up considerably. Roads, buildings, hydropower energy projects, tourist related infrastructure and sand and stone collection from river channels are the main developmental activities, which influence the vulnerability of landscapes and local communities to natural hazards.”

The document added, “There is no doubt that the region needs economic growth. But this development cannot come at the cost of the environment. It will only make the already risk-prone and ecologically fragile region more vulnerable and development more ‘deadly’. We also know that climate change will exacerbate the vulnerability of this already fragile ecosystem.”

It stated that the Uttarakhand tragedy offers a valuable opportunity to reframe the contours of the development debate and mentions clearly, “It is not really about environment versus development; it is about environment versus reckless growth built on non-adherence to rules, regulations, guidelines and experts’ recommendations. This, in effect, derails development in the long-term.”

Talking about the socio-economic and environmental vulnerability of the state, the report mentions that the impact of modernity and efforts to extend the development models of plains into the hilly region have made the social and economic life of mountain communities vulnerable. The vulnerability of the people or community or region is inseparably linked to the social, cultural and economic processes developing there and the agricultural and ecological transformation of the region.

“The great Himalayan mountains are of enormous value for the ecosystem services and potential and the Uttarakhand region represents one of the most fragile, vulnerable and economically challenged ecosystems. It is an acknowledged phenomenon that vulnerabilities are created, they are the product of social development or faulty development, and they reflect deficits, shortages or disruptions within socio-economic development,” the document mentions.