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Joshimath tragedy: How people got deprived of choosing their own path of development

Counterview Desk 

The Campaign to Defend Nature and People (CDNP) led by Prof Jagmohan Singh (from Shaheed Bhagat Singh's family) expressing solidarity with the people of Joshimath, has said that the Himalayas are victim of “not natural but development policy-induced disasters.”
Supporting the ongoing struggle for justice and accountability in Joshimath, and giving a call for a “campaign to defend nature and people from destructive development”, it said in a statement, there is a need to move towards “an ecosystem-based human rights approach to development.”

Text:

We as representatives of diverse social and environmental groups from across the country express grief and concern for the people of Joshimath, facing forced displacement from their homes in the midst of winter. It is indeed the gravest tragedy, not a mere 'disaster' – to witness the collapse of one’s home and land. It is a tragedy that will go down in contemporary Himalayan history, its trauma reverberating not just with the people of the entire region but across generations.

A long history of invitation to disaster

The tragedy unfolding in Joshimath has once again forced us to accept and believe that the spate of disasters we are witnessing in the Himalaya are certainly not ‘natural’ but constructed in the era of modern capitalist development. It is time that we stop fooling ourselves with legends of nature’s wrath and blame the fury of the gods and start facing the demons that exist in the form of our economic and political systems of governance that have brought upon us these losses. How can we turn away from the following facts that have emerged from the Joshimath situation?
  1. That close to 50 years ago the commissioner of Garhwal, M.C Mishra, in an official report had warned of the geological conditions of Joshimath and recommended regulation of construction activity as well as protective measures in the region.
  2. Ignoring such warnings, in the last few years, a series of development projects including rampant tourism-related multi-storied buildings, highway widening and other construction for the Char Dham Project, and a 520 MW mega hydropower dam were undertaken in and around the town. The Tapovan Vishnugad project of NTPC involves the construction of a several kilometres-long underground tunnel in the wake of which severe damage to local geology, hydrology and landscape has been put on record.
  3. The Himalayan belt has seen drastic climatic changes. But more importantly the changes in land use, deforestation, the construction of dams and roads leading to slope instability, dumping of muck, deforestation and related erosion has multiplied the human and environmental impacts of these climatic events.
  4. The scientists and environmental experts who studied the region presented research to establish that the unbridled construction, development footprint and the cascade of dams multiplied the impact of the flooding.
  5. The most significant report that made these linkages post the floods was the Ravi Chopra Committee report tabled in front of the Supreme Court and amongst all the other recommendations it recommended a review of the proposed hydropower dams in both the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi River valleys. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forests refused to accept these recommendations.
  6. The ambitious Char Dham highway expansion project for which a bypass was being built through Joshimath also received unfavorable views from local residents, activists and environmentalists not just for the extent of erosion being caused but also because of the series of brazen violations of environmental norms especially related to muck dumping.
  7. It is shocking to note that these projects were given repeated clean chits. From the Geological Survey of India to the Ministry of Environment to the disaster management authorities and the regional pollution control boards and forest departments – it seems that every authority had failed to execute their duties when dealing with these developments.
  8. In 2021, in the Chamoli disaster in the Rishiganga valley upstream of Joshimath the under-construction Tapovan Vishnugad dam acted as a hurdle for the roaring flood which also swept away many workers at the site of the project. These floods also probably contributed to cutting at the toe of the mountain on which Joshimath is perched.
  9. Financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank that have funded the NTPC project also failed to take account of the possible risk from these constructions not just prior to implementation but even after the 2021 tragedy.
  10. For the residents of Joshimath, an added shocker was the dismissal of a Public Interest Litigation that was filed in the Nainital High Court bringing to light the threats posed by the NTPC project. Not only did the court dismiss the petition in the very first hearing but also imposed costs on the five petitioners questioning their motivations and credibility.
These past developments indicate how Joshimath was set up for the current crisis.

The façade of ‘natural disaster’ and ‘All is well’

After all this, when the issue of widening cracks in the homes of Joshimath residents was brought to the notice of the administration a couple of months ago, the authorities turned a blind eye. In the last month or so 850 homes have been marked with the red cross and close to 3000 people have been evacuated. Alternative arrangements have been made for shelters in hotels with temporary relief for those who have nowhere to go. As per reports, close to 30% of the town stands affected and virtually displaced and there seems to be a growing trend of cracks in the affected area.
Within days of the disaster’s unfolding, there was a gag order by the NDMA – banning scientists associated with government institutions from releasing information around the disaster.
Further, when people under the banner of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti raised slogans of 'NTPC GO BACK', the government came out to support the company and deny NTPC’s role in contributing to the disaster. The Uttarakhand Chief Minister has also given a statement that ‘development cannot be stopped’.
In this hour of grave crisis, we stand in solidarity with the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti and support the demand for rehabilitation and compensation of all the affected people. We support the Samiti’s demand for immediate temporary shelter structures while permanent arrangements are still pending. What is happening in Joshimath is an indicator for what is in store for the entire Himalayan region, as “development” policies are promoting hydropower, highways and mass tourism, bringing in their wake deforestation, floods, landslides, unplanned urbanisation, water shortage and waste disposal problems. The impact of climate change is being compounded by maldevelopment and misgovernance.
Close to 30% of the town stands affected and virtually displaced and there seems to be a growing trend of cracks in the affected area
In the light of the unfolding Joshimath tragedy, there is a need to take a broader look at “development”-induced disasters all over the country. There has been an all-out attack on nature which accelerated from the second term of the UPA government and further since 2014. It is characterized by resource-grab by the state and corporates to build infrastructure- from the Golden Quadrilateral to Char Dham roads in the Himalayas, forest diversion for roads, rail lines, power lines, mining and industry, Industrial Corridor through farmlands, hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas, Sagarmala project all along the coast, tourism infrastructure in the islands and the Inland Waterways project in rivers. The idea seems to be to develop infrastructure in order to attract private capital investment and build capitalism further. Even if the latter does not materialize, infrastructure building is seen as an end in itself. The result is severe erosion of biodiversity, loss of valuable climate buffers and loss of livelihoods for nature-dependent communities. The economic activities of the communities which are largely for subsistence and small income are getting increasingly unviable due to the economic policies that support corporates and big business.
The Joshimath tragedy illustrates what happens when people are deprived of voice in choosing their own path of development and managing their local natural resources by themselves, but it is not the only tragedy. Nature-dependent communities everywhere are resisting the attack on their livelihoods, but alone, as place-based and issue-based struggles. The adversary however is common- a system that greedily pursues profit while laying waste both nature and people. The struggles against the system need to be united. There are many initiatives to demonstrate alternative ways of communities using natural resources sustainably.
The overarching principle that may serve as the common guideline for the protection of nature and address issues of both inter- and intra-sector justice and equity is an Ecosystem-based Human Rights Approach.
Ecosystem-Based Human Rights Approach stands for access, distribution and consumption of natural resources abiding by the principles of human rights without violating or transgressing the norms for sustainability of the ecosystem. This over-arching approach, in its turn, is constituted of the following principles – sustainable livelihood practice, workers’ welfare, participatory governance by the community, subsidiarity in area and scale, inter-sectoral equity, climate justice, inter-generational equity and precautionary principle.
While it is necessary to demonstrate that alternatives to the present destructive model of development are possible, in order to bring about a systemic change to an economic model that protects nature and nature-based livelihoods, a political initiative is required. The Campaign to Defend Nature and People has been initiated with this broad objective. The communities themselves, activists who work with communities, and scholars need to work together to create a strong campaign. Farmers, fishers and fish workers, forest workers, pastoralists and other nature-dependent communities together are more than 60 crore people in our population of 140 crore. An economic and political alternative can be built only on the basis of the communities struggling against the capitalist onslaught.
In order to prevent more Joshimaths, we call upon nature-dependent communities, activists and scholars from all over the country to join the Campaign.
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Click here for signatories

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