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Land Subsidence in Uttarakhand: Paying the Price of Development


Land Subsidence in Uttarakhand: Paying the Price of Development

If there is one aspect of human development that the past one year has brought to us with unquestionable clarity it is that climate change is no longer a phenomenon confined to scientific discourses. With blinding speed, its impacts are now visible in the daily lives of the people. For many years, the impacts of climate change were associated more with rapid and massive disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, cyclones etc. However, the increase in the frequency of gradual or slow-onset disasters has finally awakened humanity to the visible threat of climate change which has reached a point of irreversibility.

Examples of such gradual or slow-onset disasters include health-related impacts of climate change, species extinction, changes in monsoon patterns, melting of glaciers, sea-level rise, land subsidence, drought etc. Such disasters may not occur with a blinding speed, but progressively decimate and expose the delicate precipice on which our entire development is built, by giving rise to severe climate impacts. The earth appears to be breaching several ‘tipping points’ beyond which the impacts of climate change become progressively worse, and, India is poised to be among the worst and most vulnerable countries to climate change associated events. The present crisis of land subsidence in high altitude regions of Uttarakhand is only a minor episode in what confronts India ahead.

The Crisis in Uttarakhand

In January this year, the residents of Joshimath town of Uttarakhand awoke to the cracks developing in the walls and floors of their houses, giving rise to the fears that the town has started sinking. Hundreds of families had to be evacuated, construction activities stopped, and demolition of existing structures had to be undertaken. The town was declared a landslide-subsidence zone. Subsequently, various other high-altitude towns of the state also witnessed the same phenomenon of land subsidence. After Joshimath, areas such as Chamba, Mussourie. Uttarkashi, Landour and Karnaprayag among others also witnessed land subsidence.

In simple terms, land subsidence is the sinking of the ground because of underground material movement, which may occur due to the removal or displacement of sub-surface earth materials. It is associated with aquifer-system compaction or the reduction on the volume of an aquifer due to excessive ground-water withdrawal and underground mining. It is not only Uttarakhand, but even other parts of the country that have been vulnerable to land subsidence, such as parts of metropolitan cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad, due to reasons such as excessive over-use of groundwater. Even a country like Bhutan is facing the same problem, mainly due to impact of its hydropower projects on water flow.

Climate change can significantly accelerate gradual disasters like subsidence over a period of time. Variability in temperature, precipitation and rainfall patterns associated with climate change has an impact on the availability and demand for groundwater. Similarly, human-induced climate change can be accelerated due to activities undertaken in the name of pursuing ‘development’, such as construction, mining etc., which are energy-intensive, lead to high emissions, loss of ecosystem and disruption of the local environment.

In the case of Joshimath, the rest of Uttarakhand and other Himalayan states, the effects of climate change are already visible and will be exponential in the near future. The fragile ecology of Himalayas is such that even small changes to the local environment can lead to massive disasters. In recent times, the last two years viz. 2020-2022 have been disastrous years for Uttarakhand, which has been afflicted by numerous high-risk climatic events due to rainfall triggering landslides.

The case of Joshimath

Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district is a border town of strategic and religious importance. It is the Middle Sector’s gateway to the Indo-China border, an important passage for religious pilgrimage to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, and a passage to Auli, an international skiing destination which is also set to witness an international winter games tournament this year.

The town has always had a fragile ecology. It lies in the Seismic Zone V and has witnessed several earthquakes of magnitude of less than 5 on the Richter scale and is at an altitude of about 2000 meters above sea level. It is highly vulnerable to sinking due to tectonic activity. According to the M C Mishra Committee (1976) report, Joshimath is situated over a deposit of sand and stone, which is not the main rock. The town lies over an ancient landslide and hence was not suitable for a township. Further, undercutting by currents of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers also played a part in triggering landslides. The report recommended restrictions on major construction activities in the region. In the wake of observed land subsidence, the recent data from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) bears out that Joshimath sank by about 9 cm between April and November 2022 and by about 5.4 cm between December 27, 2022, and January 8, 2023.

Despite its fragile ecology, successive governments over the last few decades have continued with the agenda of ‘development’ without regard to the local environment. As a result, over the last few decades, the fragile town has been a victim of unplanned construction, over-population, obstruction of the natural flow of water, hydel power activities, lack of proper drainage system and projects for the widening of National Highways. This is true not just of the town of Joshimath but is the normal state of affairs in many of the Himalayan states, especially Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. In recent times, reports of land subsidence have also begun to come from Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda. In most of the subsidence-hit areas, unplanned ‘developmental’ activities such as construction have thoroughly clogged underground water channels leading to accumulation of water under the foundations.

As is the case when such crises erupt, the first tendency of the people is to initiate a game of blame game, instead of introspecting. In the case of the Joshimath crisis it has been no different. Initially, the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project was blamed for land subsidence. However, the NTPC clarified that the tunnel built by it does not pass under Joshimath town and was dug through a boring machine instead of blasting. However, it has compromised a common aquifer which served Joshimath. Regardless of the NTPC’s denials, its project has rightly been put on hold, along with the impending Char Dham project and the Helang bypass project.

The Illusion of Development

The crisis in Uttarakhand brings to us the illusory and feeble foundations upon which is built our model of ‘development.’ Historically, almost all countries have used the pretext of ‘development’ to ignore the massive planetary crisis staring at us in the face. It is a much-maligned word, whose results have led to immense misery, environmental destruction and climate change. It is to the credit of this ideology of ‘development’ that we are now facing an existential crisis, having irreversibly damaged our environment and resources. And yet no one could argue that we should go back to the medieval ages.

In this entire illusion of ‘development’, humanity is stuck between two shallow extremes. On the one hand are the communist-environmentalists whose agenda-driven function is to obstruct developmental projects in countries like India. With a mentality akin to M.K. Gandhi, they tend to glorify poverty and squalor. For, they perceive the success of such infrastructural advancement as a complement to India’s power in the world, which often goes against their agenda. Hence, issues like livelihoods and environment become convenient fodder with which to target the Indian state.

But, equally, on the other extreme is the pervasive view of development, as a process catering mainly to human comfort and for the satisfaction of the grossest materialistic tendencies of the people. It is, thus, a catchword of every political party. Its purpose can range from giving free doles and amenities to people to building massive innovations that can cater to comfort of the people. Here also the motivation is misplaced. Instead of fulfilling national interest, the purpose is to satisfy the collective ego. From such shallow motivations arise shallower and insincere foundations for developmental initiatives. That is why most developmental projects are mired in corruption, lack of oversight, short-termism and merely become ventures for fulfilment of selfish interests.

If national interest were truly what undergirded ‘development’, the situation that we are witnessing at present in Uttarakhand may not have taken this form. But today’s ‘development’ is entirely divorced from morality and national character, and instead relies on narrow and selfish foundations. Instead of leading to the development of man’s character, advancing his psychological progress and leading to better national character complemented by national strength and power, the development of today is the development of man’s baser instincts. These baser instincts expose themselves at the collective level in the form of damaging thinking that self-destructs and leads towards imminent extinction-like situation. Thus, it is the virus of what Sri Aurobindo had termed as ‘Utilitarianism’ that eats away at the core of the hollow illusion that we call development to satisfy ourselves.

Need for India’s Self-Realization

The myth of development is a global one, and in the mutual competition to develop, countries often sacrifice the limits of such development at the altar of utilitarianism and collective ego. Indeed, the argument for climate inaction – increasingly untenable – has historically run along these lines. India, China, Brazil and other developing countries have at global fora, consistently held the official position that climate change is the result of cumulative historical emissions by the West, with developing countries’ contribution to climate change being minuscule, and the latter being denied the ‘right to develop.’ The West, on its part, argues that it was not aware that its development since the Industrial Revolution was leading to a phenomenon called climate change, whose threat became apparent much later. In this way, the argument has raged on for the past three or four decades, leading to a stalemate on the question of collective global cooperation to tackle climate change.

The earth has now reached a point where significant thresholds have already been breached and even if the world manages to limit global warming to 1.5 C – which existing data bears out, it will not – certain climate-induced impacts and ecosystem changes will be irreversible. In the present condition, India and other developing countries are in the most vulnerable position to climate change. They claim – rightly – to have not contributed to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions as the West has done. However, their blind pursuit of environmentally-insensitive development – in aping the West – has brought them to a much worse position. At global negotiations, these countries may keep pressurizing the West for finance and technology and even get a few humiliating returns. They claim that they need this finance for making the expensive transition to sustainable development. What this ‘sustainable development’ implies are merely piecemeal measures – ways to ensure the survivability of the present model of development, without having to make any fundamental sacrifices, through reliance on new modes of science and technology.

However, the need of the hour is to realize that this aping of the Western developmental model and then following in the West’s footsteps in their model of ‘sustainable development’ needs to be challenged. And this challenge needs to come from India which alone has the repertoire of spiritual knowledge, albeit dormant for many centuries, to carve a new way out for humanity.


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