Joshimath. Why is it sinking? Why we acted the way it did? How can move forward?

Snowfall in Joshimath, Image from Wikimedia Commons/Vaibhav78545

There are places where angels fear to tread – such a place is the Himalayas, which rose as the Indian plate banged into the Eurasian place about 50 million years ago. The Indian plate continues to push and the Himalayas still rise, making the Himalayan zone one of the seismically most active zones in the world. There have been at least 2 earthquakes (4.5+ on the Richter scale) within a 50 km radius of Joshimath in the past decade. In such a fragile place, we must step lightly. We haven’t. Joshimath is the latest example of what follows.

While there are a lot of ‘what should the government do’ pieces floating around, many fail to sufficiently explore why governments over the decades have acted the way they did, blaming purely rent seeking motives or ignorance and hubris. While that maybe partly true, there is far more to the story. Like providing employment, providing steady, low-carbon power, providing drinking water – all of which voters demand. Ignoring these while providing guidance will only ensure more Joshimaths sink across the Himalayas.

One last thought: I enjoy pilgrimages. And appreciate a smooth road to make the trip. But one of my favourites has been climbing up the Ahobilam hills when there was no infrastructure – no path, only jungle and very steep cliffs to navigate. I remember the journey being painful and absolutely frightening in parts. There was one clamber with the merest foothold on a slippery rockface underneath a waterfall. Helping us cross it seemed an act of Grace. And I came away richer spiritually for making it. Perhaps, pilgrimages are not meant to be easy to make. Difficulty is part of the Design.

Uttarayan is the day when the Sun begins his northward journey – a time of changing direction, and embarking on new paths in our lives. Quite appropriate to contemplate a new way of interacting with our mountains.

Sharing my piece that appeared in the Times of India, Sunday Edition, on 15th January 2023.

Joshimath’s salvation lies on a new path but will we walk it?

Mridula Ramesh  1/15/2023

Joshimath is sinking. Why? One reason is that the town came up on landslide debris, which was unable to bear the load of houses and roads. Another is that it’s located in a seismically active neighbourhood, and Joshimath itself lies next to a fault line. Also, because the rocks are so young, rain and snow melt percolate within, creating aquifers beneath the surface.

Then there are the dams. The Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric project lies a few kilometres away from the town. In 2009, a tunnel boring machine employed in this project punctured an underground aquifer and released about 60-70 million litres of water daily for nearly a month! That’s an astounding volume of water — about 5,000 Airbus A-320s worth — that used to sit below the ground. When that water was released, the land over it could potentially sink — almost like a slowly deflating balloon. Next, when we build roads or houses, we blast the hills to flatten out the land and clear trees. Blasting destabilises land. Tree roots act like scaffolding holding onto the land on steep slopes. When we remove them and intense rain falls on a bald slope, it can pull it downward. Finally, water seeping from the soak pits in Joshimath adds to the water-earth merry-go-round of this land. Taken together, we see this sinking was to be expected.

And it was. We’ve been warned of these dangers many times. By protests and reports over the decades. By landslides, flash floods, lost lives and now, by cracked roads and houses. And the malaise is spreading: There is more water gushing out of one of those cracks and houses in nearby Karnaprayag have recently developed cracks. With the media frenzy, political leaders have to be seen to act. Families have been moved to a safer place and there is talk of compensation amid razing unsafe structures and resettling families. Even as human stories emerge — a lifetime of earnings slipping through the cracks, of resettlement and forced migration (these will become repetitive themes on a larger scale as the climate warms) — let us consider the root causes of the problem. They pertain to the need to reduce carbon, provide water and create jobs within India’s democratic realities.

Climate ambition first. India has promised to increase the share of electricity capacity from non-fossil sources from 42% today to 50% by 2030. To do this, India is amping up its solar, wind and to a smaller extent, hydropower capacities. Energy experts believe several more gigawatts of hydro will need to be added by 2030 to stick to our decarbonising goals. That could be dicey given the existing problems with hydro. Of course, we could bring down our carbon footprint in other ways. For example, with agriculture using a good chunk of India’s electricity, we could ask those using agricultural connections (not always farmers) to pay fairly for the electricity, which would better manage demand (and save groundwater). But few politicians will risk being branded anti-farmer by doing this. Moreover, hydropower is alluring for other reasons. Energy can be stored in water and quickly released, making hydro far better for meeting peak loads than the more variable solar and wind. The rent-seeking possibilities with construction can be politically salient. Dams provide drinking water. Everything needed to build a dam is available within the country — important in a geopolitically unsettled world. Lastly, dams are a concrete (pun intended) symbol of development. When someone asks what a leader did for people, s/he can point to the dam.

Moving to roads. The people living in the hill tracts of Uttarakhand have few employment opportunities, and look to elected leaders to correct this. Enter religious tourism and the roads and hotels built to cater to it, which provide livelihoods that people asked for. Reducing the number of tourists while preserving jobs is akin to saying the grace of Lord Badrinath is only for those who can afford a helicopter flight. Not realistic. Reducing the tourism revenue overall means fewer livelihoods. Not politically acceptable. And so, we are stuck. To get unstuck, let us (rightly) descry dams and roads built in sensitive areas, but also ask how Delhi can do without Tehri’s water in May 2023, how to secure livelihoods of Joshimath’s residents, how to supply low-carbon stable electricity in a raucous democracy. But with the climate changing, the equilibrium is shifting. Who wants a dam that is overwhelmed by constant flooding and who wants to travel on roads which can slip away? The end of this road is approaching, and a new path where roads and homes are built more thoughtfully, fewer dams in fragile areas and better managing how our electricity is consumed and our water managed, is emerging. Down that path lies Joshimath’s salvation, but will we walk it?


Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Other reading recommendations

Historical Context:

2010 Letter to Current Science warning of subsidence risk related to dam:

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