What is happening in Joshimath? What are the reasons behind this calamity?

Wide cracks have appeared in many roads and hundreds of houses in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, and the authorities have declared it a landslide and subsidence-hit zone. Families are being evacuated to temporary relief centres while there are protests by those who do not want to move till there is certainty about where they will be rehabilitated.

Multiple factors including unplanned construction, over-population, obstruction of natural flow of water and hydel power activities are being cited as reasons for subsidence (sinking of the ground because of underground material movement) in Joshimath. Perennial streams around the town and highly weathered rocks with low cohesive characteristics make the area vulnerable to landslides and subsidence. But the unplanned construction activity as also NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro project, Char Dham road project and Helang bypass by the BRO have been going on despite warnings by experts. All these projects have only now been halted when subsidence in Joshimath has reached a dangerous scale.

What is the scale of the problem? Is this the worst such instance in recent history?

Although appearance of cracks on buildings is not a new phenomenon in Joshimath, this time they are deeper and wider, leaving crater-like holes in some places, fanning widespread anxiety and fear among the residents. The town, which has been built on loose soil deposited by landslides, loose soft rocks and moraine (material left behind by retreating glaciers), does not have a systematic drainage.

Unplanned construction halts the natural flow of water and creates pressure over and under the ground while simultaneously softening porous, crystalline rocks. As it is a highly seismic zone, there are additional pressures created by tectonic shifts. All this has led to apprehensions that the town might collapse under its own weight.

What has triggered the immediate crisis?

Joshimath is situated in the middle slopes of a hill with Dhaliganga and Alaknanda rivers on the south and the north and perennial streams on the west and the east. It is simultaneously impacted by landslides and subsidence. In recent years, flood events of June 2013 and glacial lake burst of February 2021 that resulted in the loss of 204 lives of workers on a hydropower project also impacted the region. Extreme rainfall events have caused the mountain streams to expand their channels and change course, leading to more slope instability. Simultaneously, there are hydro power and road projects that are causing the already fragile ecosystem of the town to be threatened further.

On the south of Joshimath, in Helang, the Border Road Organisation is building Heland bypass using heavy machinery. The bypass is aimed at reducing the distance to Badrinath shrine by 30 kilometres but this too is impacting the region adversely. Despite the geological vulnerability of the area, hydro power projects have been sanctioned around Joshimath and Tapovan, namely the Vishnugad HE Project. A tunnel boring machine was employed to excavate the head race tunnel of this project. Additionally, there is indiscriminate construction activity to build hotels, rest houses, multi-storied buildings which have further overburdened the town and caused sub-surface water pressure by blocking the natural flow of water. The town also lacks a proper drainage system. All these factors have combined to exacerbate an existing crisis.

Were warning ignored in Joshimath?

For about five decades since the MC Mishra Commission report in 1976, experts have warned about the vulnerability of Joshimath which is situated on an old landslide and seismic zone. The report, prepared by an 18-member expert committee headed by Garhwal Collector MC Mishra, had warned against development and construction activity in the area. “Joshimath is a deposit of sand and stone — it is not the main rock — hence it was not suitable for a township. Vibrations produced by blasting, heavy traffic, etc., will lead to a disequilibrium in the natural factors,” the report had said. Over the years and more recently, the Geological Survey of India and the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) had warned against construction and big projects in the area.

What steps need to be taken regarding habitations and infrastructure in similarly hazardous regions in the Himalayas to prevent such incidents?

Besides an immediate halt to unplanned construction activity in the private domain that includes big resorts, hotels, multi-storied buildings in ecologically sensitive zones, the environmental and econological hazards of tunnelling, excavation and construction involved in road and hydro-power projects need to be re-assessed on an urgent basis.