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Joshimath-1: When development priorities depend on companies, politicians, officials

By Bharat Dogra* 

Reports and images of a large number of badly damaged and cracked up houses and other buildings in Joshimath town of Uttarakhand, located at a height of over 6,000 feet, have shocked and distressed people even in distant parts of the country as they have a deep emotional and cultural attachment to the Himalayan region and its people. While the main focus has been on the more widespread devastation in Joshimath, problems have also been reported from other places like Karnaprayag.
SP Sati, a geologist of Uttarakhand, has written that people of hundreds of villages and dozens of small towns are living in hazardous conditions. A study by an international team of scientists, which identified 309 landslides on the 247 km road stretch between Rishikesh and Joshimath, said that most of the slides “seemed fresh”.
Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu said on January 15:
“In the mountains, like it has happened in Joshimath, there are a number of areas in Himachal Pradesh as well which are gradually experiencing land subsidence. If the right solutions and mitigation measures are not taken at the right time, there could be widespread devastation.”
Zones of serious hazards and sinking conditions have been reported even from leading hill stations like Shimla, Nainital and Darjeeling.
For all their majestic grandeur the Himalayas are actually vulnerable and fragile, in geological terms being a very young formation, not stable but in the process of still settling down and hence prone to a lot of instability, also placed in high seismicity zone.
Such conditions can be stabilized by protecting forests, increasing greenery, staying closer to natural scheme of things, avoiding too much disturbance and more particularly avoiding heavy and indiscriminate construction as well as the use of explosives for this purpose. Leakage of water into rocks should be avoided, water sources and their flows should not be tampered with excessively.
Development work involving constructions should proceed slowly, with a lot of caution for ensuring safety. While this is true for almost the entire Himalayan region, with even the plains just below or the terai region being very prone to quake damage, this is even more significant in the context of Uttarakhand with its susceptibility to very high intensity earthquakes.
In particular, past experience has revealed, a lot of caution is needed in the context of mining, road and highway construction (or widening) and hydro or multi-purpose dam projects.
Unfortunately, such caution has been repeatedly neglected. Even in the case of an extreme vulnerability site like Joshimath (which has been built on landslide debris) and its environs, construction of hydro, tunnel, road and bypass projects ignored caution and heavy construction was allowed in excess, despite warnings being given against this by an official committee (Mishra Committee) as many as about 50 years go.
Despite this being related much to the devastation, the indiscriminate construction of controversial development works was stopped only after protests by local people. A struggle committee to save Joshimath had been protesting against such high risk construction and development works for over 15 years without their voice being heeded by the authorities.
What is common to many such devastations is the important role of indiscriminate construction work in this. The fragile ecology of Himalayan region has been devastated increasingly by dams and heavy infrastructure projects, accentuating disasters. In mid-June 2013 stormy rains brought heavy floods in Uttarakhand state of India. Villages and towns were hit by waves of water, sediment ad stones.
The damage was particularly heavy below the sites of some hydro electricity projects. Nearly 6,000 human lives were lost, most of them visitors -- pilgrims, migrant workers and tourists. The loss in terms of houses, buildings, roads and bridges was estimated to be in billions of dollars.
The enormity of the tragedy shook the people and many of them spoke against the role of dams and hydel projects in aggravating the tragedy. However, those in official positions stated that dams had helped to reduce the damage. The Supreme Court of India sought the advice of an experts’ body on this issue. This experts committee chaired by Dr Ravi Chopra, Director of People’s Science Institute, was composed of independent experts as well as those in official positions. Hence there were differences within the committee.
Nevertheless, it stated that several flood waves were aggravated by hydro electricity projects, including those under construction. The poor muck management by the project authorities came in for special criticism for aggravating the tragedy. The committee drew attention to the fact that the damage had been extremely massive below the Vishnuprayag and Srinagar hydro projects.
Neglect of catchment area treatment, supposed to precede such projects, had proved costly. The report said, “Reservoirs have been impounded while implementation of catchment area treatment plans has not even started. This is a life-threatening situation.”
However, the rush for dam construction continued after a short gap, and at the time of another wave of destructive floods in 2021, again the hydro electricity projects faced a lot of flak for aggravating the tragedy.
What is more, even if we go by what official reports state, some of these projects have the destructive potential to lead to even bigger disasters in future. This is particularly true of the most controversial of all these projects, the Tehri Dam Project (TDP), constructed in Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
This is a 260.5 meters high earth and rockfill dam, across the river Bhagirathi at Tehri just after its confluence with river Bhilangana for creating a storage reservoir to generate power and provide irrigation facilities, with an underground power house of 1000 MW capacity. This high risk project was resisted by people for nearly 25 years.
Ultimately nearly one hundred thousand of them were displaced, including those living in some of the most fertile and beautiful villages of this region. The resistance movement was led by Virendra Dutt Saklani, an elderly freedom fighter, and later when he became too ill, by his friend the famous Gandhian environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna.
This project located in high risk conditions was taken up initially with some reluctance even from senior officials. YK Murthy, former Chairman of Central Water Commission stated:
 “The dam at Tehri would not only be one of the highest structures of its kind in the world, but would call for tackling of complex technical problems involved in a rockfill dam of such a height for which there is very little precedence available elsewhere in the world.”
As more and more people voiced their apprehensions about the safety of this project, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a review in 1980. This was assigned to an Experts’ Working Group constituted by the Department of Science and Technology.
While submitting his report in 1986 the Chairman of the Working Group complained about the “unending dogmatic approach” of the dam authorities and stated that the Tehri dam site is not suitable for a 260m high dam. He made a clear recommendation for halting the work on this project.
However, the authorities managed to manipulate things to continue the project. Then in 1990 the TDP was comprehensively assessed by the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC -- River Valley Projects) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. After examining the available information and data in detail, meeting several experts and activists, and visiting the dam site area and villages, the committee concluded that the Tehri Dam Project (TDP), as proposed, should not be taken up as it does not merit environmental clearance.
Although the EAC Report examined all important aspects of the TDP, it gave its opinion that safety factors alone are important enough to stop the clearance of this project. It stated, "Taking note of the unacceptable risk involved, extremely poor status of readiness to deal with the hazards and unprecedented damage in case of a breach or overtopping the Committee reiterates its considered view that it would be irresponsible to clear the Tehri dam as currently proposed."
More specifically, the committee stated about the hazards of TDP: 
"Therefore, considering the almost total certainty that a strong earthquake of magnitude greater than 8.0 on Richter scale will occur in the region during the life of the dam, and considering that the dam design does not provide for such an earthquake the Committee has no option but to conclude that construction of Tehri dam, as proposed, involves totally unjustified risks. The magnitude of the disaster that would follow, if the dam collapsed, strengthens the Committee's opinion that approval to the construction of this dam, as proposed, and at the present site, would be irresponsible."
The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) had not given the necessary attention to the hazards and risks of TDP. This report says:
"Though despite repeated requests, the THDC did not provide the committee with risk analysis in terms of the impact of dam failure on the life, property and cultural heritage, our own tentative calculations suggest that if the Tehri dam collapsed, it would cause flood waves which would wipe out Rishikesh and possibly Haridwar. This wave would wash away most of the settlements around this region."
According to a prominent seismologist Prof James N Brune:
"We have to conclude that the proposed Tehri Dam's location is one of the most hazardous in the world from the point of earthquakes. There is little question that in terms of the hazard rating of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), its hazard class is extreme.”
He further stated:
“No large rock-fill dam of the Tehri type has ever been tested by the shaking that an earthquake in this area could produce, and thus we have little basis for confidence as to how the dam would perform. Given the number of persons who live downstream, the risk factor (in the ICOLD classification) is also extreme. In such circumstances the ICOLD declares that a fully state-of-art dynamic design analysis of the dam, in response to specified acceleration time histories, is mandatory."
A critical factor on the basis of which clearance was finally given to the TDP by a special High-Level Committee of the Government of India (after the EAC had refused to clear the project) was the calculation of the Peak Ground Acceleration. This calculation was ironically based on the work of Prof. James N Brune only.
However, when this calculation was shown to Prof Brune, he responded:
"The calculation used ... is unfortunately used in an incorrect, out of context and out of date manner and, therefore, in my opinion no weight can be given to the resulting calculation of a maximum acceleration of 0.22g.
"Further, I would like to add my concern over the simple geologic interpretation given in the report forwarded, namely that the risk can be assessed by considering only the simple case of the main fault. In thrust faulting situation, there are often multiple intricate faults and thus a branch fault of the main fault is likely to come much closer than the main fault and might cause high accelerations at high frequency and possibly local ground rupture. It was the possibility of a local ground rupture which led to cancelling plans for Auburn development in the US.
"I believe there is no chance that a dam in similar circumstances as Tehri dam could be licensed for 0.22g in the US. I have discussed the matter with several of my colleagues and they all consider 0.22g as too low a design acceleration for Tehri Dam."

On the basis of these comments a prominent expert involved in assessing TDP (Prof. Gaur) wrote to the head of the High-Level Committee which finally cleared TDP:
"It is quite clear to me that the issues raised by Prof Brune are extremely critical. They are 'new' in the sense that they did not receive a critical scrutiny at time of our earlier deliberation or else their far reaching implications would not have been missed. And in case they were to be discounted, a scientific critique would have been warranted to justify their omission. This as you know, did not happen."
Hence, it is clear that the TDP was cleared by the authorities on the basis of ignoring the reports of their own experts committees and misrepresentation of the views of prominent experts. This indicates the extent to which some of the the authorities, hand-in-glove with huge construction companies, are willing to negate and neglect the most critical safety and environmental issues to somehow push ahead such projects.
In the process the people of the Himalayan region are not just being exposed to high risks but also to social disruption as a large number of people are being displaced. What is more, there is increasing concern that even more serious environmental and safety risks may be created by what is taking place across the Himalayan borders in very nearby areas by China.
This is particularly true in the context of the recent Chinese activities relating to dams and hydropower generation. While China has already built some dams on Brahmaputra river (called Yarlung Tsangpo in China), the biggest threats are being debated in the context of a mega project which is planned to have three times the installed power capacity compared to the Three Gorges Project, which currently has the highest installed power capacity in the entire world.
Building such a gigantic project in a known seismic area is widely seen to be a very high risk, with serious implications downstream not just for India but also for Bangladesh. This is in terms of flood and quake disasters, reduced lean season flow and reduced deposition of fertile silt. Given a history of hostile relations, difficulties in regular sharing of water data may accentuate problems for India.
In recent years, there has been a spurt of highways and related tunnel projects, new projects as well as highway widening projects. While this led to direct eviction of many people, careless construction and excessive felling of thousands of trees also led to repeated landslides and threats to homes of several villagers. A big tunnel construction spree is ongoing and proposed In Himachal Pradesh.
On June 24 2022, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, while visiting Atal Tunnel in this state, said 19 tunnels would be constructed in Himachal Pradesh. He said that work was in progress on 8 tunnels while the work on 11 tunnels would be ‘awarded’ soon. The minister also laid the foundation stone of nine road projects of 222 km worth INR 6,155 crore by video-conferencing.
It is not known how many of these projects have been assessed carefully in an unbiased way for their environmental and social impacts and whether announcements for awarding contracts are made before or after such careful and unbiased assessments.
However, what is well-known is that many of these projects are being taken up in ecologically very vulnerable and crucial areas, including catchment areas of very important rivers and their tributaries.
Announcements of new projects are made in grand, royal style from the top without local people being even aware of any of them
It is also well-known that many of these projects involve very large-scale felling of trees whose numbers are often underestimated officially but despite this the number is still very high. Overall in the entire Himalayan region the number of trees felled and damaged recently and endangered by such works would be in some hundred thousands( lakhs).
Construction work for these including blasting and boring can damage the geologically fragile and unstable hills immensely, also leading to landslides which can defeat the original objective of facilitating and speeding traffic. Other disasters can also be aggravated. Damage to water sources and springs, nearby houses and shops, deposition of rubble and displacement of people are other problems.
There are innumerable complaints of displaced people regarding lack of proper compensation (sometimes lack of any compensation, as in the case of those who lack ownership papers).
Careless construction adds to these problems. A 2021 report on Urla-Nausha road in Himachal Pradesh stated that due to neglect of drainage aspect with the initial monsoon the road resembled a nullah and a lot of water was diverted towards agricultural fields nearby, damaging crops. Villagers quoted in this report alleged that the entire work procedures are aimed at making more money and even after a lot of budget has been spent the condition does not seem to improve.
Another report on the going Kalka-Shimla highway widening work that with the initial monsoon a lot of water and debris was diverted towards houses near Kumrhatti. This was attributed to carelessness in construction to which the affected people had drawn attention but their pleas had gone unheeded, the report said. 
An accompanying report from Kandhar-Bairal Road that the debris created by its cutting work had led to the burying of the water sources in remote Mangal Panchayat area (Himachal Pradesh).
Suresh Bhai, a social activist based in Uttarkashi district ( Uttarakhand) who has been pointing out the hazards of careless highway widening says: 
“Our on-the-site investigations revealed that one big tree is cut several nearby smaller trees are also damaged in the process. Cutting of trees causes landslides at new places and this in turn leads of loss of more trees.”
He along with senior Gandhian Radha Behan and other activists prepared a detailed report about 3 years back which showed the havoc that has been caused to the forests and trees of such eco-sensitive zones as the Gangotri region, where the Ganga river (known here as the Bhagirathi) originates. In addition this report depicted numerous ways in which indiscriminate construction activity is likely to cause disasters similar to the floods which devastated Uttarakhand in 2013.
The report also shows how many villagers, farmers and small-market shopkeepers feel threatened as their homes and places of livelihoods face increasing risks of landslides and floods as a result of the fragile, geologically young hills being disturbed by the use of heavy machinery and blasting in the course of the highway construction work. Enormous amount of debris and rubble have been poured into rivers and this is a prescription for disasters as this can unleash and aggravate floods in the rainy season.
In fact, if instead of driving straight on in highways, one ventures into nearby villages and habitations one gets a very different view of the ‘development’ by highways and their widening. I tried to do this about two years back on the Parwanoo-Solan ongoing widening stretch of Shimla-Kalka highway.
Mangoti Nande Ka Thara used to be a beautiful, picturesque roadside village on this highway but when I visited this village it had been turned into a badly threatened village where farms had been devastated and cracks have started appearing in the hills. Anil Kumar said:
“Such a big crack has appeared in my house that the administration asked me to vacate the house. I have vacated my house but where do I go now? For the time being my family has taken shelter in my brother’s home but the cracks appear to be spreading there.”
Two cowsheds had also collapsed. The villagers remained awake on rainy nights fearing disaster. Several villagers the entire future of the village is badly threatened.
They had received compensation for their land acquired earlier, they said, but the damage they suffered later as a result of the ruthless and indiscriminate construction not suitable for these fragile hills later was what harmed them most.
Further on the road, on the journey towards Solan, I came across similar threatening conditions in other roadside habitations -- in Sanwara village, in Hardinge colony near Dharampur and also in some places near Kumarhatti.
Clearly there is much need for improvement in which highway and related construction and widening are being speeded up in the Himalayan region and several flaws need to be corrected.
These flaws include -- road widening to a wider extent than desirable, use of improper methods for hill-cutting, hurry to award big contracts without taking independent and unbiased expert opinion (particularly on geological, ecological and social impacts), inviting only those experts whose views are supportive towards contracts, avoiding proper environmental and social appraisal, sub-dividing projects into smaller portions to avoid mandatory appraisals and public hearings, excluding local communities from decision-making and monitoring processes, adopting top-heavy, arbitrary and centralized approach.
Announcements of new projects are often made in grand, royal style from the top without local people being even aware of any consultations and appraisals. Experts with best knowledge of local conditions are left wondering why no one even approached them for their opinion.
Local people often say that if facilitating traffic is the objective, this can be achieved at much lower economic and ecological costs. Unfortunately what one sees in reality is often a maximization of ecological and social costs instead of striving to minimize them. Several roads are becoming more risky with billboards warning about the risk of falling stones in destabilized hills.
A review of all the highway construction and widening projects in the Himalayan region should be taken up so that adequate precautions to minimize social and environmental costs can be taken and mistakes which have proved so costly in the past in some of these projects are not repeated elsewhere.
Much can still be done to reduce the ecological and social adverse impacts by involving local people. In addition mining activities, particularly excessive sand mining in rivers, have proved very harmful in terms of accentuating disasters as well as reducing the water absorbing capacity of rivers and other water-sources. Several mining mafias have continued this destruction despite court directives to check this.
Clearly, there is a strong case for drastically changing development priorities in the Himalayan region so that risks to safety and sustainability can be minimized. The wider message of Joshimath is that development cannot allowed to be dominated by big companies which often become the most influential players in the areas where their projects are being implemented due to their enormous resource base.
Development priorities cannot be decided on the basis of what these companies want or on the basis of their relations with top politicians or officials. Development must be decided on the basis of the needs of people and their concerns to prioritize safety above anything else in the specific high vulnerability of the Himalayan region. This is the wider message emerging from the Joshimath tragedy.
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man Over Machine', ‘Planet in Peril’ and 'A Day in 2071’



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