Joshimath, an environmental disaster waiting to happen

Within just one year of Rotary making environmental protection one of its areas of focus, we are facing a man-made disaster in Joshimath, located in the Himalayas. Fortunately, before the government gag order, we learnt from the National Remote Sensing Centre of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) that this temple town in Chamoli district, and the base camp, from where we trek to the holy city of Badrinath, has sunk a whopping 5.4cm in just 12 days from December 27. The massive soil sinking occurred due to “a rapid subsidence event that was triggered on January 2, 2022.” What has terrified the residents of Joshimath, whose houses have developed massive cracks, is evidence that this rapid shifting of soil had occurred only recently, and the sinking rate was much lower in the previous months. Between April and November last year, Joshimath sank by 9cm. Having trekked to Badrinath some 20 years ago, spending one night at the beautiful temple town of Joshimath, I will never ever forget the clear star-studded sky that we gazed into beyond midnight. In pollution-afflicted metros like Chennai, you can never ever dream to see a night sky like that. And, trust me, I’ve never seen a star-filled night sky like that ever again.

That is why it is even more heartbreaking to read about our “sinking” beautiful temple city, which is now on the verge of disaster and from where some 4,000 people had to be moved out to relief camps after the satellite survey. The Uttarakhand government has admitted that apart from hotels and business establishments, nearly 700 homes are in danger. Experts have blamed this man-made ecological disaster on unplanned and chaotic infrastructure projects in the region, especially a power plant that involved blasts and drilling in the mountains. Of course now committees will be formed and compensation given, if any worthwhile compensation is even possible for uprooting anybody from their home and life.

How did this disaster happen? First of all, Joshimath is located not on solid rock but soft sand and stones, and that too in seismic zone 5, which is more prone to earthquakes. Add to this the scourge of unplanned development. It is heartbreaking to know that way back in 1976, the then Joshimath district collector, M C Mishra, had warned the government not to allow digging or blasting of land in that sensitive region. Add to this, lack of a proper drainage system and hectic and unplanned construction to accommodate the growing number of tourists/pilgrims in more restaurants and hotels, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

So what are the lessons to be learnt from this? Indiscriminate blasting, tunnelling and construction of roads in ecologically fragile Himalayan regions should stop immediately. This is also a warning to the government to stop rushing through with “development” projects in the Himalayas and other ecologically sensitive regions like the Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep etc, and stop the allotment of forest land to industrialists. As for the courts, how exactly does this tragedy make the Uttarakhand High Court decision, which in July 2021 described five petitioners who sought revocation of green clearances granted to some hydel projects in Chamoli district, where more than 200 people lost their lives in a flash flood in February 2021, as ‘puppets’? Atrociously, each was fined 10,000 for their “frivolous petition”. It’s time we stopped calling those who seek to protect our planet as “ecological terrorists,” and learn to have more respect for mother nature.


Rasheeda Bhagat

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