Hacking The Environment
Joshimath damages have aggravated since August 2022
The Joshimath disaster perhaps is the tip of the iceberg of a bigger horror waiting to unfold. The Chief Minister of the state has made a trip to the area. So far, 56 families (among many more), whose houses are badly damaged with cracks due to sinking ground have been shifted to relief camps.
They would probably be given ‘some’ compensation instead of authorities building houses for them (even using 3D printing) as should be the case. An expert team after two-days survey of the area says that damages have aggravated since the previous survey conducted in August 2022.
A temple in Joshimath has collapsed and another has developed cracks. Media reports of January 8, 2023 indicate that the number of structures (residential and commercial) with cracks has increased from 561 to 603 in a span of 48 hours. Experts recommend that houses with maximum damage should be demolished and areas which have become uninhabitable must be identified.
In addition, more detailed studies have been suggested including fresh geo-technical, geophysical and hydrological investigations along with seismic and slope movement monitoring. But all this amounts to firefighting after ignoring warning signals and after the disaster has struck.
Anil Joshi, founder of the ‘Himalayan Environmental Studies & Conservation Organization (HESCO) says there has been repeated neglect by the concerned authorities and even a report flagging this issue in 1976 was ignored. He adds that any construction beyond 1000m must be approved only after thorough study. The increased influx of tourists is also blamed for the load in the area but this number would increase with the Char Dham Yatra and vote-bank politics.
In Singapore, the number of private vehicles to be added every year is set based on road capacity. This cannot be exceeded even by one vehicle by anyone whether politician or billionaire. Can we restrict the number of tourists and vehicles on the Joshimath-Kedarnath route and what about the cavalcades of politicians?
Twelve years before the 1976 report mentioned by Anil Joshi, another 18-member government-appointed committee headed by the Collector of Garhwal had warned that Joshimath is situated in an old landslide zone and could sink with rampant development and unchecked construction. Ironically, studies in India are ordered and filed.
Who would dare tell the politicians that a particular development project is “dangerous”? Besides, should disaster occur the blame can be deflected to another government (State or Centre) or another political party since mileage can always be drawn by activating bots, IT cells and “followers” on social media platforms.
The Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant is a 520 MW hydroelectric project of the NTPC. It is located downstream on the Alaknanda River and will contain four 130 MW Pelton turbine-generators. The barrage is being constructed across the Dhauliganga River and has a catchment area of 3,100 sq km.
The tunnel project was awarded to ‘Hindustan Construction Company’ in 2016. The Vishnugad Hydropower Plant is at an advanced stage and is expected to be commissioned coinciding with the 2024 General Elections. In the instant case, the trigger apparently was the tunneling in an already fragile hillside for the Vishnugad Hydel Project at Tapovan.
Ecological changes have their own signaling system. In February 2021, the dam of the project still under construction was severely damaged due to a flash flood caused by a glacier burst and avalanches, leading to huge amounts of water mixed with sand and stones rushing into the Dhauliganga River. This caused severe damage to the NTPC project - 140 workers at the construction site died or went missing.
The Joshimath disaster is typical of India where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. But can we deflect the blame to Hindustan Construction Company for undertaking the tunneling without taking into consideration the fragile soil conditions? Significantly, two researchers from the Garhwal University and Disaster Mitigation Management warned in May 2010 that the tunneling alignment in this fragile area, as part of the NTPC project, should not be sanctioned.
What about the responsibilities of the NTPC, the State and the Centre? Who is supposed to take cognisance of all the studies and warnings and what action will be taken against those who knowingly kept mum?
Additionally, the issues of global warming and environmental degradation which keep cropping up in the news every second day, According to the IMD, 2022 was the fifth warmest year in India after 1903. India recorded 0.51 degrees Celsius higher average annual mean land surface air temperature compared to the average in the period 1981-2010. 2,227 people died because of extreme weather in 2022; 1,285 in thunderstorms and lightning, 835 in floods and heavy rains, 37 due to snowfall, 30 in heat waves and 22 in dust storms.
On the issue of environmental protection, India has promulgated a number of acts, in addition to various policies and directives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also awarded with the United Nations' highest environmental honour for his leadership of the International Solar Alliance and pledge to eliminate single use plastic in India by 2022. But are we doing everything possible to mitigate global warming and towards environmental protection?
Take the large number of highways and roads developed across India in recent years, the credit for which goes to Union Minister Nitin Gadkari. These truly are the best showpiece of development under the BJP government. One can literally zip between places.
But ‘widening’ of the roads and highways required cutting the trees on both sides. Gadkari said three-four years ago that 10 crore trees would be planted but that has yet to take off. No trees are seen on the sides of new highways either, perhaps because even before the highway is formally announced, politicians, their affiliates and the connected land mafia acquire the land on both sides of the planned highway. Can we expect any changes?
The Joshimath region is strategically very important because of its proximity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) plus the Chinese claims and excursions in the Barahoti area. Adequate border infrastructure and road communications are vital for troop movement and logistics. But the policy makers perhaps think that the Army will somehow manage the show come what may. .
Lt General Prakash Katoch is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are the writer's own.