These are desperate times for the residents of Joshimath, a small Nagarpalika town at an altitude of over 6,000 feet in Uttarakhand, with a population of about 25,000. There are images of inconsolable residents from the border town of Chamoli district, clinging on to their hearth and belongings, being forced to move out of their ancestral homes.
As the slushy water continues to flow, accelerating the subsidence in several parts of the town, the administration has evacuated more than 500 people. The water flow that started at the beginning of the month had caused cracks in several buildings and other structures.
Any assessment of the volume of the water underneath, the reasons why it gushed out, for how long is it likely to continue, and the amount of damage that it may cause, is yet to be ascertained as there is no definite scientific answer, at least not yet. A series of scientific studies will have to be undertaken to reach a definite conclusion as to what has led to the crisis in Joshimath.
While Joshimath is a revered town and a centre of pilgrimage for Hindus, it is also prone to natural disasters. The recent one that is etched in everyone’s memory is that of the catastrophic floods that swept part of the premises of Kedarnath temple and surrounding areas. The debris that flew downstream had caused unprecedented devastation.
A number of reports by several expert committees, including the one by Mishra Committee in 1976, have highlighted the fragile landscape of the area – that Joshimath town was not founded on solid rock, rather it is sitting over a landslide that occurred in the distant past. Residents of the town have been trying to draw the attention of authorities for years.
Some experts say that it is the construction of a tunnel for the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power project that runs through the hills beneath Joshimath town that may have accelerated the process of subsidence. Construction of the all-weather road that has required massive cutting into the hills has also been an issue.
The question everybody is asking today is whether the vulnerability of the region has been taken into account while conceptualising and implementing the developmental schemes in the area. Joshimath’s story is not a solitary one. If it is Joshimath now, it could be Nanital, Karnaprayag, Gopeshwar, Munsiari and perhaps Pauri next. Massive construction activities across the region call for a serious rethinking of development strategies in these mountainous towns.
As the Joshimath phenomenon continues to unfold, fears have increased due to the discerning spike in the environmental volatility manifested in erratic rainfall, temperature fluctuations and geomorphological processes such as landslides, floods and soil erosion in the past few decades.
Could authorities have prevented this situation from unfolding if they had read the writing on the wall? Shouldn’t planners and policymakers rethink the relationship that exists between the fragile environment and massive developmental activities in the region?
For now, the first priority of the administration is to evacuate people from vulnerable areas and relocate them which is akin to saving people from a fire that has engulfed the area. While relocation is the urgent need of the hour, the bigger question that stares us in the face is whether it is possible to rehabilitate these residents. Can we rehabilitate a society, its culture and traditions that are inextricably interwoven with the landscape? And most importantly, can we create similar livelihood opportunities in areas where they are relocated?
If we look at the case of the oustees of the Tehri Dam Project, one will find that, historically, rehabilitation has all along been treated as a simple mechanical exercise. Those families continue to struggle. The bigger question in Joshimath’s case is whether we can rehabilitate a heritage, memories, trees and waterfalls. Most important, can we create jobs?
According to estimates, Joshimath’s population was about 400 plus till 1872, which now touches 25,000. This phenomenal increase is part of a social pattern. People from small villages migrate to towns and people from these towns migrate to bigger cities.
While a small portion of this migrating population comprises those who are better off economically and seek better educational, medical and other facilities, a majority of the population that migrates moves in distress in search of job opportunities. These cities and towns then become the centres of massive ‘development’. No wonder then that more than 1,000 villages in Uttarakhand have turned into ‘ghost villages’ with zero population. Joshimath is one example of such a pattern of migration from villages to cities.
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As these small towns and cities increasingly get populated beyond their load-bearing capacity, there is an inevitable mushrooming of unplanned and unregulated construction of houses, lodges, hotels and other structures. All this with little planning that goes into providing infrastructure such as public spaces, drainage and sewage facilities, compounds the situation.
Reflecting this pattern, people from surrounding villages descended to Joshimath a few decades ago in search of livelihoods. Since it is en route to the Hindu shrine of Badrinath, the international skiing resort Auli, the Sikh pilgrimage centre Hem Kund Saheb and the Valley of Flowers, it provided ample opportunities to the locals in hospitality, transportation and other service sectors.
A substantial population of the town comprise people belonging to the Bhutiya tribe who had thriving businesses with Tibet before the 1962 India-China war. Most of them diversified their small businesses to newer areas after Joshimath became an important religious and adventure tourism centre.
Though there is no official plan as yet of the government to relocate and rehabilitate more than 50 percent of the population that needs immediate resettlement, authorities have been considering relocation sites such as the small town of Gauchar and Pipalkoti village.
A substantial part of Gauchar was acquired by the government for the construction of an airstrip in the 1990s and part of the land has now been acquired by railways for the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail line.
Do we have enough land to relocate and rehabilitate a town? Is comprehensive rehabilitation possible given the traumatic history of displacement and rehabilitation in India? For now, there appears to be a widening disconnect between the region’s inherent geological instability and development strategy that requires serious thought.
Harsh Dobhal is a visiting professor at Doon University. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.