Uttarakhand disaster stories continue

Feb 3, 2023

Land sinking will continue even if people’s worries do not occupy the media space. It is surprising to see the human approach to life. Until some incident reaches our door, we don’t learn anything, and then we are good at making foul cry. We tend to mock someone who talks about the truth.

Joshimath, a busy town in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, has a population of 23,000 people. The concrete structure overcrowded the region as tourists, pilgrims, trekkers, and members of the armed forces frequented the place. Later, land sinking became a concern. It has been a concern for many decades, with no sign of abating.

Humans never learn anything from their experiences. Joshimath is a perfect example. We have had so many bad experiences because of illogical developments. We are still on the same page because we are never ready to change our lives or take responsibility for our actions, even though the impact of climate change and land subsidence has become more evident.

The government is the first offender in the proliferation of irrational projects. It needs voters in every election. Now, leaders are more clever. They know how to play psychologically, and the wind votes for them. It seems the government does not have any commitment to the people. Therefore, such examples are common, and the problem is not new.

Long ago, there were reports that the land in Uttarakhand was sliding in many spots. The experts have updated the problem to say that no construction or project work should be allowed as the topography is very sensitive to redevelopment. The Uttarakhand government started the Tapovan-Vishnugad project of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which triggered a landslide. When they knew the reason for the landslide, they wanted to shut down the project. Residents posted “NTPC go back” placards everywhere. Immediately, the government vacated the people from the place, closed some hotels, and demolished them. But the government is going ahead with the power project.

Interestingly, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, said twice that the Joshimath land sinking issue was a natural disaster, not man-made. The power project has nothing to do with it. He also commented that local people leading a normal life were an insult to his people.

He is only a politician and not an expert on this matter. However, he wanted to protect the government and the project. And as expected, the central government also supported him. The government released a relief package of Rs 1.5 lakh to the affected families in Joshimath under MNREGS, which tranquilized the people. When money speaks, everyone keeps quiet.

The construction boom is another reason why the land is sinking. The concrete structures choked the area’s natural drainage and the systems for waste flow. Most houses have soak pits that push loose material into the ground. These also contributed to the sinking of the land. ISRO revealed a report extracted from the Cartosat-2S satellite about a rapid sinking of 5.4 cm in just 12 days at Joshimath. However, the National Disaster Management Authority was forced to withdraw the report as a result of the government’s pressure. The government said that it did not want any panic among the public. What they were experiencing was more than any report could describe. No one understood the agenda of the government. What everyone could understand was that no government wanted to stop any project promoted by the government or a corporate entity.

All these showed the government had no obligations to the public. Uttarakhand has had far too many negative experiences. What happened in Chamoli was only one of the bad experiences. Seven hundred and twenty-three houses developed major or minor cracks on the floors, ceilings, and walls. Over 4,000 families were relocated to safer areas.

The influx of settlers and the consequent uncontrolled construction boom are some of the reasons for the land sinking. We call the migration and construction boom the growth of the hilly regions. Shimla’s population grew from 25,000 to 2,03,000, making the seismic zone IV city the most populous in the western Himalayas. Shimla, the paradise of elite-class tourism, witnessed massive deforestation, which weakened the underlying rocks and caused soil erosion. The land development necessitated slope-cutting for land subsidence. The impact of this reckless construction, which violated all civil engineering logic, pushed the city to the edge of an inevitable disaster. As environmentalists continued to cry, the cracks continued to shatter the hope of the hill city. The population of Darjeeling increased from 12,924 in 1901 to 1,62,000 in 2011. Between the years 1901 and 2011, Kalimpong’s population grew from 1,069 in 1901 to 49,403 in 2011. In the same period, the population of Kurseong grew from 4,496 to 9,43,471.

The greed for making money blinds everyone to the future stability of the ecosystem. Disasters did not come as teachable moments, so we continued to play dirty. Nobody can stop it, so no one can hope for the best.