As soon as reports of cracks developing in houses started pouring in from Uttarakhand’s Joshimath town, in early January, the state and central governments swung into action and quickly set up a panel for a “rapid study” (pdf) of the land subsidence and its impact. The panel was ordered to file its report within three days and hand it over to the National Mission for Clean Ganga. According to media reports, the panel, in its report, attributed the land subsidence and cracks in houses to improper drainage and sewage system. The same recommendations were made in a report on Joshimath about 46 years ago, on which no action was taken.
Situated at an altitude of 1,875 meters above sea level in Chamoli district, Joshimath is geologically fragile as it is built on a slope with deposits from an old landslide and falls in high-risk seismic Zone 5, which is highly vulnerable to earthquakes. In such a situation, climate events and disasters are not new for the town. After every incident, governments form committees, reports are filed with recommendations, but as the track record shows, they are hardly implemented.
Mountains of reports and suggestions
In 1976, Joshimath witnessed land subsidence resulting in cracks in some houses. To find out the cause and impact of the situation, a committee was formed under the chairmanship of Mahesh Chandra Mishra, the then-commissioner of the Garhwal division.
The committee, in its report, said, “The lack of proper drainage facilities also accounts for landslides. The soak pits which exist are responsible for creating cavities between soil and boulders. It will lead to water seepage and soil erosion,” it said.
In the last 46 years from 1976 to 2023, there have been many studies on Joshimath and its surrounding areas. Among them, the 2006 report of Swapnamita Chaudhary, the 2012 Disaster Management Report of the Government of Uttarakhand, the report of the High Power Committee formed under the chairmanship of Ravi Chopra after the 2013 tragedy, the 2022 report of Piyush Rautela, and the report of SP Sati, Shubham Sharma and Navin Juyal filed in the same year, are some of the important ones.
Apart from this slew of government studies, studies by independent researchers and institutes were also done from time to time.
The oldest of all these reports, the 1976 Mishra Committee report, the 2006 report by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Studies’ researcher Swapnamita Chaudhary, and two separate studies done in 2022, have similar findings and recommendations on Joshimath’s land subsidence and its impact.
Talking about this, Mallika Bhanot, an activist associated with Ganga Ahvaan, a non-profit organisation working in Joshimath, said, “Disasters have a very short-term memory. Every time a disaster comes across, they (governments) start making one committee after the other. When these committees come up with honest reports, the governments don’t act on them.”
While talking about multiple committees and reports on Joshimath, she said that the government and the administration don’t want such reports to hinder their projects, and if this happens, the government forms another committee to reject the report of the earlier one.
“The most shocking of all these reports was the Ravi Chopra committee report which was completely and unanimously accepted by the environment ministry. They (the ministry) submitted an affidavit (in the Supreme Court) in December 2014, reiterating everything the Ravi Chopra committee’s report had said about hydropower projects. They (the ministry) actually went a step further and commented saying that hydroelectric projects have played a direct and indirect role in aggravating the impact of the 2013 disaster. Later, when the judge pointed out how disastrous hydroelectric projects were, they made two more committees on top of this committee,” she said while talking about the high power committee set up by the Supreme Court after the 2013 devastating Kedarnath floods.
In all these studies done on Joshimath, water seepage and percolation were cited as the biggest reasons for land subsidence.
Apart from this, many other reasons such as construction work and the felling of trees were also mentioned in the Mishra Committee report. The Mishra Committee attributed the land subsidence in Joshimath to felling of trees, saying, “Trees are important as they act as mechanical barriers to rain, increase the water conservation capacity and hold the loose debris mass. An increase in grazing and browsing incidents is akin to felling. Natural forest cover in the Joshimath area has been mercilessly destroyed by a number of agencies. The rocky slope is bare and treeless. The absence of trees results in soil erosion and landslides. There is nothing to hold the detaching boulders. Landslides and slips are the natural outcomes.”
However, the amount of attention paid to this recommendation can be gauged from the fact that over 50,000 hectares of forest land in Uttarakhand, a little less than the size of Mumbai city, has been diverted for non-forest use in the last 30 years.
Cracks have been appearing in houses in Joshimath for the last 14 months. The situation aggravated with the rapid land subsidence in early January.
Data from (pdf) the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF&CC) show that 58,684 hectares of forest land in Uttarakhand was diverted for non-forest uses—mainly road construction, power generation and its transmission—between 1991 and 2021. Of these, Chamoli district, in which Joshimath is located, is the district that has diverted the maximum forest land after Tehri Garhwal.
“It is not just about one study; many studies were conducted but they didn’t help the people of Joshimath. Instead of implementing their recommendations, they were ignored. As a result, the people of Joshimath and Uttarakhand are suffering,” Atul Sati of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which has been protesting against government inaction in Joshimath, told Mongabay-India.
“Ignoring the recommendations of the 2013 report, there were blasts in tunnels, the government was building huge guest houses and private players were also given permission for such buildings. Even after all those suggestions, the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan projects were continuing and 12 more hydroelectric projects were approved,” he said.
Talking about the studies being done on Joshimath’s land subsidence situation and the transparency of the administration, Sati said, “Right now all the researchers from different institutions are here in Joshimath. But will their reports be made public? You are hiding the ISRO’s report and not making it public. Reports on the seepage of water in Joshimath are also submitted but the administration is not sharing them with the public. If you don’t tell people about this report, how will they make arrangements for their safety?”
The courts are turning a blind eye?
With regard to the situation worsening in Joshimath, local organisations and people approached the supreme court on January 10. The supreme court dismissed the petition saying that the Uttarakhand high court is already hearing the matter related to the incident in question and that the petitioner should approach the high court.
“As a matter of principle, we should allow the high court to deal with this. The high court is seized of a broad range of issues, we’ll give you the liberty to approach the high court,” the supreme court said.
Earlier, following the Chamoli floods in 2021, which claimed nearly 200 lives and caused extensive damage to the Tapovan power project, five residents of Chamoli petitioned the Uttarakhand high court to cancel the environmental clearance granted to the Tapovan-Vishnugad and Rishi Ganga projects and compensate the local people for the damage they suffered. The court not only dismissed this public interest litigation (PIL) but also imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees each on the five petitioners. “This petition seems to be a highly motivated petition which has been filed at the behest of an unknown person or entity. The unknown person or entity is merely using the petitioners as a front. Therefore, the petitioners are merely puppets at the hand of an unknown puppeteer,” the court said while dismissing the petition.
Atul Sati, one of the five petitioners, while talking about the ongoing cases regarding Joshimath and the court’s role, said, “First of all, the court is not accepting the recommendations of the committees formed by itself. And then even if someone is bringing this matter to their notice, then also don’t take any action on it.”
“On the one hand, the Nainital high court has talked about giving human status to rivers saying that just like there are human rights, there should be rights of the river. And on the other hand, the situation is such that when someone is coming up with the issue of the river and its rights, it is not heard and on the contrary, you are imposing a fine on the person who is raising this issue,” said Sati.
Senior supreme court advocate Prashant Bhushan said that the courts cannot be painted black in this matter and it cannot be said that the courts are doing nothing. After the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, the supreme court had taken suo motu cognizance of the matter and formed a committee, he said.
Along with this, he also said that the stand of the Uttarakhand high court in the 2021 Chamoli case was not correct.
“The government and the ministry of environment have abdicated their responsibility that is very clear. Now, the courts also, in this case, not only abdicated their responsibility but made completely unfounded aspersions against the petitioner. It was absolutely absurd for them to say the petition was motivated,” Prashant Bhushan pointed out.
This article was originally published in Mongabay India.