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'Joshimath' - the warning for Indian subcontinent, writes Prof Parthankar Choudhury

Land subsidence in Joshimath is an alarming news in the major media houses of India for the past one month or so. Subsistence of land literally means progressive settling or lowering of the surface which may be caused by the loss or seepage of water or underground mineral resources.

Joshimath is situated in the northeastern part of Chamoli district of Uttarkhand on the National Highway 58 and is located on the Himalayan foothills. The area is flanked by two rivers, Alaknanda and Dhauliganga, which according to local environmentalists, make it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

As per available information, almost thousand houses in those areas have developed cracks due to land subsistence and almost all the affected families have been shifted to comparatively safer places. As of now, subsidence has already affected approximately 40 percent of Joshimath and this is just the beginning of a long story. Someone quipped, ‘Picture abhi bhi baaki hain’!

The obvious question that crawls up in the mind of any conscious citizen is that, why this is happening in the ‘abode of God’? Is this a ‘Natural Disaster’ or ‘Man-made’? Has it happened all on a sudden? Is this a ‘Development’ versus ‘Conservation’ issue? If so, to what extent developmental activities can be blamed for this?
Before proceeding further, let us ponder a while on the term, AQUIFER- seepage from which is responsible for such a major mishap. An Aquifer is a body of rock (or sediment) that holds groundwater. Aquifers are generally of two types; confined and unconfined. Confined aquifers have a layer of non-porous rock or clay above them, while unconfined aquifers lie below the porous soil layer. In Unconfined aquifers, groundwater can seep into or out due to their porous nature. Aquifers also discharge naturally at springs and in wetlands.

Through media and various other sources it has been learnt that a section of the people is blaming the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) for initiating the work of construction of a 12km long tunnel, 8.5 km of which is being done by tunnel boring and the rest is being done through blasting. Any layman would be able to fathom that although boring apparently might not cause any immediate disturbance on the neighbouring landscape, which, otherwise, blasting could do. Although the NTPC authorities have made it clear through a public statement that the Joshimath episode is not due to their ongoing activities. Some of the big media houses have reported that the government has ruled out any link between the Joshimath sinking and NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. However, the local geologists and the environmentalists are of altogether different opinion.

It needs to be mentioned here that NTPC activities have started in Joshimath and its adjoining landscape in various phases in 2009, 2012 and 2014, although vehement opposition from the ‘Mother Nature’ was not perceived on earlier occasions. According to some locals, land subsistence in Joshimath visibly started in November, 2022.

Dr. Navin Juyal, noted geologist find it difficult to accept the statement given by NTPC. He has been working in this field since more than forty years and in an interview he has said that the ongoing work is being done on a Bypass located below Joshimath, which being situated on a steep slope, has made the area extremely vulnerable. In a media statement, he went on adding that the area is seismically very sensitive and this particular aspect is being stressed since 1939, but nobody paid any heed to it. Sinking of Joshimath is not a new phenomenon. About half a decade ago, the then central government appointed a 18 member committee led by M C Mishra, who in their report (submitted in 1976) advised in clear cut terms that Joshimath is situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated, and recommended that all types of construction works should be prohibited there.

Regarding the unplanned development activities and protection of another holy site (Dhari Devi temple) in the hilly terrains of Uttarakhand, Late Sushma Swaraj, the Minister who hold several portfolios of the government once expressed her deep sense of concern over the ‘Vinash’ versus ‘Vikash’ exercises in Uttarakhand and said, Where inefficient people are given undue weightage, and the real knowledgeable people are sidelined, then three things happen, Disaster, Death and Trauma ( Jaha Apujyo logo ko puja hoti hai, aur pujyo logo ki tiroskar hoti hain, waha tin chise hote hain- AKAL, MOT aur VOY). In case of Uttarakhand, this has happened. And not just in Uttarkhand’s ‘Dhari Devi temple’ or ‘Joshimath’. The Aarey Forest of Mumbai has witnesses almost identical protests from the environmentalists in 2019 as well. Wherever there are any scientific and rational voices for environmental causes, people at the helm of affairs leave no stone unturned to slash the protesting tongue. In the Narmada Bachao Andolon, where Medha Patkar was doing peaceful protests, had to face the same consequence in 1990’s. She was repeatedly beaten and arrested by the police. This is a tragedy of the land that alarming note of the environmentalists are seldom paid any attention on time!

In the context of north east, it is not out of place to share my experiences on the Tipaimukh Dam (hitherto proposed) at the upstream of River Barak. Tipaimukh dam was supposed to be constructed at the 500m down from the confluence of the Barak and the Tuivai rivers. It was conceptualized long back in 1955 and the estimated cost at that time was 1,097.00 crores. Hydropower generation was later added, and it was claimed that the project will have an installation capacity of 1500 MW. It received several protests from upstream areas like Manipur, Nagaland and also from the downstream areas of Bangladesh. In the intermediate areas, we had an organization named Society of Activists and Volunteers for Environment (SAVE). SAVE was working in close association with all the Anti Dam activists both in the upstream and downstream of River Barak, and in course of that, we had several interactions with Mr. R. K. Ranjan Singh, the sitting MP from Manipur, who at that time was the Registrar of Manipur University, Imphal. It was during 2007 that a team of delegates from Bangladesh was supposed to Visit the Tipaimukh Dam area, but to foul weather, their helicopter could not land on that day. SAVE had a plan to give a memorandum to the visiting team of Bangladesh. As the plan did not work, copies of the memorandum was sent by post to the Bangladesh High commissioner’s office. From there, it reached to the Government of India, and then Assam. The Intelligence Bureau then started investigation about the authenticity of the complaint. In course of that, the IB team once reached my residence, as my signature was there as the president, and Late Pijush Kanti Das (Journalist, and a close friend of mine) was the secretary. However, in course of discussion they were convinced that SAVE is not a ‘Tukde-Tukde’ gang or any of that sort. I had a terrible experience on that day. Anyway, the pleasant note is that, since 1955, although several crores of rupees have been swallowed by the turbine and cement mafias, but till date, the Tipaimukh High Dam has not been able to see the light of the day.

Yeah, while reverting to Joshimath, the common man’s expectation is that the controversies and the confrontations over the issue should come to a standstill. Till date, whatever subsistence has taken place in Joshimath, is just the tip of the Iceberg. Let there be well coordinated and well thought research and good level of coordination among different stakeholders so that fine balance between the two important, yet antithetic components ‘Conservation’ and ‘Development’ is nicely calibrated. Joshimath is located in the Himalayan belt and ‘Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system’ is one of the eight National Mission under the National Action plan on Climate Change. We ought to think that we have just one earth, one nation, and for that matter, ‘Just One Joshimath’. If we fail here, that would be our collective failure to save the ‘Abode of God’ in their own territory!

The author of the article is Prof. Parthankar Choudhury, Dean, E. P. Odum School of Environmental Sciences, Assam University, Silchar, Assam (India). He can be reached at

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