Joshimath in Uttarakhand, a town of strategic importance to the Indian Army and a religious centre, is on the verge of sinking completely as years of construction work in this densely populated area has begun to take a toll. Dr Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, the Indian School of Business (ISB), who was also the coordinating lead author of a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on oceans and Cryosphere that investigated the impact of climate change on glaciers, spoke to Moneycontrol on what can be done to stop things from getting worse.
He said that there is a need to re-evaluate complex infrastructure projects in the vulnerable Himalayan region, especially in view of climate change. Edited excerpts of the interaction:
The Himalayan region has recurring floods and landslides and it is also witnessing a lot of infrastructure development. The sinking of Joshimath is being linked to NTPC Ltd’s hydropower project construction work in the area. Could this have been averted with better planning?
Planning in the Himalayan region, which is a very fragile ecosystem and a bioregional space, needs to have a much broader vision of not just Joshimath, but the entire Uttrakhand. Geological and seismic information should be compiled and studied. The Himalayan mountains are among the densely populated mountains of the world. So, it needs roads and infrastructure like schools and hospitals. These are relatively benign projects and require minimum construction. But hydropower projects like that of NTPC and others involve tunnelling through the mountains.
NTPC has built a 13-kilometer-long tunnel across the mountain that entailed blasting and impacting the area. These are very fragile mountain systems that recently formed; parts of the mountain can turn into soil. While tunnelling, they have punctured a very huge water body and this is not the first time it has happened. We need very sensitive equipment to map the water resources, without which it is difficult to make out where the water source is. They have hit a huge water source and water is gushing out and that’s why the entire city is sinking.
Joshimath is a town built on the debris of glaciers. There have been many studies in the past and we have information that should lead to wisdom for us to do minimal infrastructure development with minimal disturbance to the immediate ecology and environment. That has not happened. The Chamoli flash flood disaster that took place two years ago was a wake-up call that we can't build complex infrastructure in this area, but still we continue doing it.
Now an entire city is sinking which has religious and spiritual significance and also strategic significance. Joshimath is one of the four maths (monasteries) founded by Adi Shankaracharya in the four corners of India. It is also of strategic importance, given its closeness to the China border.
Uttarakhand has been witness to disasters every few years in the past, whether it be the flash flood that struck Chamoli district in early 2021, or the flood and landslide of 2013. The state has some major infrastructure projects being built like the hydropower projects and the Char Dham project. Have enough planning and review been done, and has action been taken for these projects in view of these disasters?
One should stop whatever is being done at this moment, especially the large projects hampering the environment. The return on investment on these hydropower projects is negligible if you consider the ecological costs that have to be paid. These ecological costs are not accounted for. Can we let an entire town sink for some 520 megawatts (MWs) of electricity?
These are projects that have been planned a couple of decades ago; they need to be re-evaluated. Climate change is a huge reality now. Once the winter rain starts, it will add further to the problems that the people are facing. The immediate action needed is that people need to be evacuated now and brought to safety and given a place with dignity. We can’t wait for the situation to get worse.
Based on whatever inputs you have, what is your assessment of the situation at the ground level in Joshimath?
The expert committee that has been sent by the Government of India will give its report. But prima facie, I think people need to be evacuated from there because we don’t know if the water is still gushing out or what will happen if winter rain comes. It is (very) cold there and houses have developed cracks. There is a risk that people may die of cold, if not of the town sinking.
What needs to be done from a long-term perspective for infrastructure projects in the Himalayan region?
In the short term, the priority should be evacuating people and keeping them safe in respectable accommodations. In the medium term, we have to take cognizance of all the past reports starting from 1964-65, including the 1976 Mishra Committee report. There is a need to re-evaluate the reports and assess what exactly is going to happen to this town, and what can be done. In the present situation, we can also look at what can be done to save the town, because not everything has been lost and we still can save things. At the same time, we need to re-evaluate all our development projects, not only in Joshimath, but also across Uttrakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh. These three states have a huge number of hydropower projects.
The ‘development vs environment’ debate is an old challenge. How can we plan while addressing both issues? Money has already been invested in these projects. What can be done to salvage them without causing any more damage?
If you look at the return on investment, we also need to see what else we get in return. Is it at the cost of this entire city sinking, which has historical and strategic importance? The second aspect is that (a lot of) money has gone into these projects. But despite the investment, if there is a natural disaster, who is going to be responsible? Can NTPC give assurance that if a major earthquake hits this project, which is in a vulnerable zone, the project will not be impacted? This will be a compounding disaster.
As for power, we can look at alternatives like solar projects in other states. Projects have to be planned in a more coordinated fashion with local ecology and environment taken into account. We can't be injecting so much hydropower in a fragile ecosystem. I don't think road construction or the Char Dham project will have as much of an impact as much as one hydropower can.