Why is Joshimath Sinking?

Over the last two months, we have been watching a distressing tragedy unfolding with the subsidence or sinking of the town of Joshimath in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Visuals of houses cracking along the walls, concrete streets breaking apart as if hit by an earthquake, and distraught residents trying to find alternative accommodation during a snowy winter have been flashing on our TV screens. The Stepwell interviews Suchismita Das, Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences division at the School of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the Centre for Inter-Asian Research. She is an Environmental Anthropologist/Sociologist who studies issues of environmental vulnerability in the Eastern Himalayan region of Sikkim-Darjeeling. She and the people she works with in her fieldsite have been keenly following this news since what is happening in Joshimath and how we respond to it is indicative of the fate of the Himalayan region in the years to come. 

While we are still taking in the magnitude of this crisis, could you give us a perspective on the many reasons that led to Joshimath?
Based on satellite images, India’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) reported that the town has witnessed at least 20.9 cm cumulatively subsidence since July 2020. As of 10th February, the district collector claimed that 868 houses had developed cracks, 181 homes were deemed unsafe, 878 people were in relief camps, and a relief amount of 515.80 lakhs had been distributed to affected families. The tragedy of Joshimath is a tale of the complex interactions between the general geological instability of the Himalayas as a “young”, still growing mountain, climate change that exacerbates such instability, and unchecked and unplanned development that brings the fragile edifice crumbling down. Given both our insatiable appetite for development and inability to address climate change, we should be heeding warnings such as the one issued by the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme that countries have to increase their efforts to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. It is unfortunate that as the world is discussing how best to use a global Loss and Damage Fund to compensate those impacted by climate change, our National Disaster Management Agency is looking to suppress data-sharing about the extent of the crisis.

The Himalayan ecosystem is fragile and prone to microseismic activity, which exacerbates the instability of phyllites and schists at the upper layers, which are more gravelly and prone to landslides. The town itself is built on existing landslide debris, a fact pointed out first by a geological study in the 1930s. Studies also show that the temperature in the Himalayas is rising faster than the average in the rest of the country, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are becoming more frequent. This area witnessed such a flood in 2021 when a part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off, causing flash floods in the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga Rivers. Residents of Joshimath believe that the subsidence increased after this disaster. Their concerns, however, were ignored by the administration. A concern that also resonates in my field site is that winters are becoming drier and wet day anomalies are increasing. Himalayan residents fear that with some days marked by unprecedented torrential rainfall and others by unusually long dry spells, the possibilities of landslides, flash floods, etc., also increase.

What is the role of human activity in the region?
Human activity is a major contributor to these geological stresses. Joshimath has grown exponentially into a concrete jungle to take advantage of the booming pilgrimage tourism-related economic opportunities. As experts have pointed out, this goes against the 1976 Mishra Commission Report, which warned that given the geological vulnerability of the region, the carrying capacity of the town should be carefully considered. Geologists also state that the construction of the town has disturbed the natural pathways of water flow, thereby destabilising the subsurface hydrology. In the event of a flash flood, when water-carrying debris is obstructed, even temporarily, the height of the flood increases, causing more sedimentation and damage. This is what caused the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Plant to be destroyed in the 2021 floods in the area, leading to the loss of numerous lives. When carried out without proper geological knowhow, road constructions, especially dynamite blasting in such a fragile landscape, can further destabilise the terrain. It is well noted now that a local aquifer was punctured in 2009 while building a tunnel for the hydro-power project, which many believe can be linked to the current crisis.

What could be a systematic approach to mitigate the impact of similar calamities in the future?
The first lesson to learn from Joshimath, especially for the Himalayas, is that development has to be well-planned and scientifically grounded. The concern about dams and roads has been well articulated in the national media, and justly so. We must comprehensively consider town planning and zoning laws in the Himalayas. After the Turkey Earthquake, the discussion groups I am a part of are increasingly anxious about the scientific warnings regarding possible earthquakes in the Himalayas. While traditional wooden architecture, without further innovation, cannot accommodate the rising populations of the hills and their growing aspirations of material modernity, the current pattern of multistorey constructions is an invitation to disaster. I am particularly troubled by some of the current discourse about Joshimath. Such discourses condescendingly frame the issue as one of “us” modern folk from the plains corrupting or destroying the “simplicity” of the mountains and its people. We would do well to steer away from such romanticisation that disempowers the very people we seem to sympathise with.

To mitigate the impact of disasters like Joshimath, we need a more empowered and encompassing disaster management system and organisation. Disaster relief budgets will have to increase, and we have to ensure that such relief does not further aggravate existing social marginalisation. During my research in Sikkim, I found people worrying that if they do not own property damaged by landslides and other disasters, they will not find relief from the state as mere residents of a locality. Questions of environmental justice have to be considered at a granular level. In the current blame game, the geological sciences, engineering, politics, development, and citizens are all pitted against one another in different combinations. Even as it is a tall order, we can find a way forward only in the complementarity of each of these positions.