Shouldn’t compensatory afforestation be in the same area in the Himalayas which is affected by the project?
The Joshimath crisis in Uttarakhand gained attention just as the New Year started, as residents staged a protest to raise concerns about the spreading of cracks in houses due to land subsidence. Land subsidence in Joshimath has now spread to affect over 1,000 buildings, besides roads, power assets, temples, and Army infrastructure.
Even as there is much anguish on what caused the most recent subsidence, the debacle at Joshimath is a severe warning to our no-holds-barred development model. This article raises some questions on what could be suitable development policies in light of environmental considerations in such fragile geographies.
Can we develop master plans and credible EIAs (environmental impact assessments) for urban areas in mountains like Joshimath, Gangtok, Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Leh, and Nainital? Just as the SC has asked the managers of national parks to permit tourists based on an upper cap; a proxy for carrying capacity. Civic bodies would sanction new construction for tourism based on dynamic caps, which can move up with infrastructure improvements.
We learn that in the Indian Himalayas, some 10,000 glaciers are receding at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade. The runoff can form glacial lakes which can then burst their banks dramatically, leading to downstream destruction.
This is what happened in the disaster at Tapovan in Chamoli district on 7 February 2021, itself a repeat of events in 2011 and 2013. The villagers of Reni had previously complained about blasting for road construction and the dumping of debris in the river. The Supreme Court had stopped dam construction in the state following the 2013 debacle. Instead, under the duress of development, we went ahead with dams and roads in such proximity to the glaciers, as to result in the loss of life, the dumping of millions of tonnes of overburden (or muck), into the holy Alaknanda, magnifying the effect of the eventual flood, and now a profoundly uneconomic project.
This is the true cost of ignoring environmental considerations and using uncritical, cut-paste EIAs. Surely the appraisal process which permitted dams that have been repeatedly wiped out on the Rishiganga, Vishnugad, Mandakini, and Assi Ganga, has to change?
Some 70-odd hydro projects (amounting to 9 GW) are still envisaged for the Gangetic basin alone (2/3 not yet built), which would affect nearly 80% of the flow of the river.
In light of the damage yet to come, can India commit to not developing dams and infrastructure projects near glaciers, at very high altitudes, or in fragile zones? To have more authentic environmental assessments, appraisals, management, monitoring, compliance plans, and public hearings, instead of doing away with them, making them propaganda documents, or reducing them to a proforma farce?
Can new dam construction be restricted to smaller projects, preferably without tunnels, and after free, prior, and informed consent of the locals? No new large projects, like Teesta IV in Sikkim, or the Ken-Betwa in the heart of Panna National Park, should be launched without bona fide EIAs, updated, third-party review of water resource analyses, and local engagement. Of the 75 dam projects under construction across the Himalayas, in case the tunnelling is part-way complete, such projects should be reviewed for completion on a case-by-case basis.
What is the appropriate aviral dhara, or e-flow, for a river? For a Himalayan river in a fragile environment affected by climate change? For sacred rivers and their tributaries across the country? In 2015, the Ministry of Water Resources stated no dam is to be considered without factoring in e-flow for the survival of the river and its ecology. Using an appropriate figure for dry season flow, for example, would rule out many dam projects ab initio.
Can aquifers be mapped accurately before taking up any project so developments avoid puncturing these and causing subsidence, as happened at Selang village in 2009?
Shouldn’t compensatory afforestation be in the same area which is affected by the project? To do so, would augment water flows and help stabilize soils in the affected region itself.
Everywhere in the Himalayas, we are building roads without geological surveys, embankments (pushtas), or water channels. This is appropriately called “cutting”, and so it is, the cutting of the roots of mountains, the blocking of springs, and the puncturing of aquifers, by turbocharged JCBs working without the guidance of geological surveys.
Some of this road-building activity is necessary for roads on the border. But elsewhere, it is for the 900 km Char Dham project, which initially attracted the flak of the Supreme Court for wilfully flouting environmental guidelines. The Court has since reduced the width of the balance roads being constructed but permitted the Gangotri and Badrinath roads to proceed, given defence considerations. There was no security need for Yamnotri or Kedarnath, but they were merrily added, indifferent to the muck to be thrown into the holy rivers.
Unfortunately, the SC ignored the recommendations of the Ravi Chopra Committee it had set up, leading to Dr Chopra’s resignation. In the Joshimath area, the Committee had recommended a single-lane highway for the Helang-Marwari bypass, but what is now being built is a four-lane road.
Even for roads that have to be expanded or built afresh, can roads be made smarter rather than wider? With road widening in areas identified to permit overtaking rather than blanket doubling?
When I think of unbridled tourism and its impact on high mountain ecology, I can do no better than to quote my late father writing aeons ago, “enough people over a thousand years have made these glorious pilgrimages, for that is what they are meant to be, on their feet, with no concern for worldly life or the comfort of highways or choppers. They were sure of the God who lived in the snowy mountains, though often uncertain if their next arduous march would not be too much for their frail bodies and unused, plains hearts singing ‘Jai Badri Vishal’.”
Now we have multiple daily flights by chopper to the Dhams. Is this truly human or spiritual progress? In the age of fast food, we are offered fast flights and fast salvation. Never mind the ecological cost: road construction in the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary, overnight accommodation (hitherto discouraged) at holy Kedarnath, and all the pollution in the sacred Mandakini stream and on a once-mighty Himalayan bugyal (grassland), home to Saussurea obvallata, the legendary Brahma Kamal. Oh, what have we done!
And what are we going to do next: I am alarmed to read we are even now planning a 22 km tunnel for Amarnath, a train to Karanprayag, and Asia’s longest ropeway to Auli. Is this a way to erase the experience of the Himalayas? What is left of the pilgrimage then once you take away the Himalayas?
Improved assessment of projects cannot be done without broad-based public discussions after widespread dissemination of information. This is why the clampdown on information around the disaster evolving at Joshimath is perplexing. Surely what is needed is a coordinated approach and not a ban?
Sonam Wangchuk in Ladakh has just ended his extraordinary fast to remind us to live simply, to prevent glaciers from melting, and to be mindful of tribal cultures. Ka Sonam points us to the Honourable PM’s 10-point agenda for disaster risk reduction, with item no. 9 being “the opportunity to learn from a disaster must not be wasted”. Can we learn from the multiple disasters at Joshimath and bring this learning to appraise future projects critically?