The ongoing disaster in the form of a sinking Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is undoubtedly a man-made one. Studies are still on to identify the root cause of the disaster. While the responses of the State and Central governments are still evolving, they would do well to appreciate that the development model lies at the root of this disaster.

The warnings have been there since 1886 when Atkins wrote in The Himalayan Gazetteer that the town was located on landslide debris. The 1976 Mishra Committee report also warned about the limited load bearing capacity of its slopes. In 2009, when the tunnel boring machine of the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project on Dhauliganga River punctured an aquifer near Selang (a village in Joshimath tehsil), it led to discharge of millions of litres of water. Scientists had warned that this can lead to subsidence.

The 2013 Kedarnath disaster was another wake-up call on the effects of intensive tourism, construction and mining. The latest such incident was the February 2021 avalanche in Chamoli district that led to floods and about 200 dead and missing, most of them at the construction site of the same Tapovan project. The left bank of Alaknanda river has been eroded.

The Indian Remote Sensing Agency is now informing us that the town has been sinking by 6-6.5 cm a year for at least 18 months, if not longer. Government officials are now telling us about the loose soil here with low bearing capacity, worsened by percolation of water, slope stability getting worsened by the aquifer puncturing and lack of drainage.

They are now telling us that geological, geophysical and geotechnical studies have never been done here, and they will now do it. The Union Earth Science Minister is now setting up micro-seismic observatories around Joshimath. It sounds eerily similar to NTPC declaring after the February 2021 disaster that it will now put up early warning systems upstream.

Before sanctioning and taking up massive projects here, were these realities taken into account? Such projects include the big hydropower projects in the immediate vicinity of Joshimath (these include the 400 MW operating Vishnuprayag project, the 520 MW under-construction Tapovan project and the 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti project also under construction), the widening of the Helangh Marwari Char Dham Highway, Asia’s longest Joshimath Auli ropeway project, and the Rishikesh Karnaprayag Railway project.

Today, the ropeway project has been officially put off. Independent geologists and local people are of the view that to save whatever remains of Joshimath and surrounding landscape, the Tapovan project and Helang Highway expansion must be abandoned. The Ravi Chopra Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had also recommended this.

Many questions arise here. Were basic studies done to ascertain the feasibility and consequences of such major interventions in this area? Did the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of these projects look at the geological, geo-hydrological, geotechnical and geophysical realities? Who appraised the EIAs of these projects? Will members of the Environment Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley Projects and the MoEF itself, which cleared these projects, be held accountable? Each major hydropower project gets clearance from the Geological Survey of India, Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Electricity Authority. How did these agencies clear these projects when basic investigations were not done?

Experts are also telling us about the carrying capacity limitations. Incidentally, the carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin was conducted by IIT Roorkee way back in 2011 that was supposed to include stability of landforms into account. The report read like that of a hydropower lobby group. Will those from IIT Roorkee who did the study, the MoEF and who sanctioned it, be questioned?

No system in place

SANDRP (South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People), an informal network working on issues related to rivers, communities and large scale water infrastructure, had raised geological and other aspects being ignored in the IIT-Roorkee report in 2011 itself. Earlier, in September 2004, SANDRP had also written to the MoEF and EAC about the inadequate EIA of the Tapovan project and lack of proper public hearings. A petition filed before the National Environment Appellate Authority against the environment clearance to the project was rejected without looking at the merit of the issues.

There is no system in place to ensure that we learn lessons from past experiences. The EACs, which scrutinise and decide to sanction the projects, are full of ‘yes’ people. Credible EIAs are a rarity. The EACs have a non-existent rejection rate. No consequences follow for submitting fraudulent, dishonest, cut-and-paste EIAs. Even after such catastrophic disasters like those in June 2013 and February 2021, there are no comprehensive reports telling us what lessons we can learn from these.

The disaster is not going to stop at Joshimath. A similar situation prevails in other parts of Uttarakhand, neighbouring Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere. If we do not show the will to understand and correct the systemic causes behind the failures at Joshimath, we are destined to be revisited by disasters of possibly increasing frequency, intensity and geographical spread.

It would be prudent if the Prime Minister institutes an independent review of the situation. All major construction activities around Joshimath should stop till such a review is done. The PM can also declare a new Himalayan Policy that takes into account the realities of the Himalayas. Get ready to walk away from disastrous ongoing projects. Start initiatives to tailor development pathways taking into account local realities, through a truly democratic process.

Joshimath is not just any town. It has a huge religious, historical, strategic, and even Himalayan significance.

The writer is a coordinator at South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People