When the history of modern India is written, the land subsidence at Joshimath, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, may get barely a footnote. Yet, Joshimath holds the gravest warning as well as a lesson for all of India, and especially for its political and economic class, which they ignore at our peril. The warning is that human activity disrupting natural ecology for development – a euphemism for unbridled construction in most cases – will lead to disaster beyond human control. The writing is on the cracking-sinking wall: development, construction, expansion and similar activities have to be segued into the natural ecology of a place rather than trying to bend the ecology to suit human plans.
Naysayers may dismiss Joshimath as an extreme, and therefore unlikely, case of a disastrous natural phenomenon – an outlier. They can continue to live in their cocoons blindfolded to unfolding reality. The land subsidence in Joshimath may have garnered national and international headlines only now, but the process has been going on for a while; the earth did not sink in the blink of an eye. A report based on satellite images by the Indian Space Research Organisation clearly states that the town sank 8.9cm between April and November last year, which seems rather slow compared to the recent increased intensity of subsidence which has been pegged at 5.4cm in 12 days from Dec 27, 2022, to Jan 8, 2023. The first cracks in houses had appeared in October 2021.
There are predictions, fuelled by a piquant mix of mythology and reality, that the entire town may sink. Joshimath is, of course, the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib as well as to the international skiing destination at Auli; it houses a military cantonment as well. What the picturesque town of around 25,000 has been facing by way of land subsidence was, perhaps, written into the rapid development and expansion in recent years to capitalize on its economic potential as the ‘gateway’. The Uttarakhand Government has been scrambling to rescue people from the hardest hit areas and give compensation – how a few lakh rupees can compensate for the loss of one’s home and livelihood is a separate question – but this is the typical fire-fighting approach.
Politicians, industry leaders, land developers and everyone involved in the town’s political economy should reflect on the continued approach of successive governments prioritising aggressive and unplanned construction on hill slopes in the past decade, construction that was given the green signal in the name of ‘development’ without due diligence and fulfilling processes such as environmental impact assessment. The National Thermal Power Corporation began work on its Tapovan-Vishnugad dam and 520MW power plant nearly 10 years ago; local residents and environmentalists had sounded the alarm then, but their words went unheeded. Another major project, the Helang Bypass, which is part of the all-weather Char Dham highway, was also cleared for construction despite calls for reflection. Both mega projects have come to haunt Joshimath. Residents are paying the price for the ignorance or wilful negligence of those commanding the political economy.
Joshimath today is asking the question of them, indeed of us all: can construction or “development” be undertaken in consonance with the natural ecology of a place, allowing nature to lead and determine such development rather than imposing human engineering on the environment? The binary approach of pitting environment against development, as if the latter can only come at the cost of the former, has long been the favourite trope of industry leaders and urban politicians, the Davos set as it were. This approach posits that economic progress will involve tearing down or mastering the environment; the larger the scale of such development, the more ecology will be lost, all in the cause of human progress. This, it must now be recognised, reflects the approach of the 1970-80-90s. It simply does not hold true any longer. Political and business leaders must recognise that the only development that is sustainable is that which respects and accommodates natural ecology – hills, forests and the sea. In this era of climate change, not embracing nature-led development means setting the stage for disaster.