The town of Joshimath is located in the magnificent hills of the Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. The city has its seat at the altitude of 6150 feet above sea level and has always been distinguished for its peculiar and lucrative Himalayan Treks and expeditions. The town has always been a link for Religious Tourism in the state by acting as a link to the famous Badrinath Shrine for the Hindus and Gurudwara Shri Hemkunt Sahib for the Sikhs.
However, it is unfortunate for us to now extend recognition to the fact that Joshimath has been in the news for the past few days; it is unfortunate for the nation to witness the emergence of sudden cracks on the roads and houses in the state following which a high-level meeting involving the officials employed in the service of the Center, officers of the state of Uttarakhand, officers from National Disaster Management Authority, Officers from Geological Survey of India and officials from the National Institute of Hydrology to assess the situation. Soon after the meeting, the town was declared a landslide and subsidence-hit zone.
In order to better understand the problem, we need to understand what a ‘subsidence-hit zone’ mean. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a subsidence-hit zone is the sinking of the ground caused by the movement of underground material.
Now that we understand the curse surrounding the town let us unfurl why it could not be anticipated in the region.
Could the Joshimath Crisis be Anticipated and Avoided?
The prediction of Joshimath becoming a subsidence-hit zone was done as early as in 1976 by the MC Mishra Committee report; the report explicitly stated that the hilly town of Joshimath rests in an area which makes it geologically unstable and such where the load-bearing capacity of the land is not towards the higher ends, in such a scenario, the committee recommended that the construction activities in the town should be limited and be checked upon to avoid the sinking of the town.
The report noted that the significant cause behind this was the unchecked construction activities which erected buildings without drainage systems that triggered landslides due to water percolation.
Hence, it is observed that a proper check on the construction activities could have significantly curtailed the chances of the ongoing catastrophe in the state.
How intense is the effect on Joshimath?
According to the satellite data released by the ISRO, which was collected using the National Remote Sensing Centre on January 13, it is estimated that Joshimath has seen itself sink at a drastic and substantial rate standing at 5.4cm in the last 12 days.
The Response of Dhami Government
The current Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami had personally visited the sinking town of Joshimath and ensured that the people of the town who are hit by the disaster to not feel alone; CM Dhami assured the victims of the catastrophe of compensation according to the existing market rate.
The response by the CM has been commendable; the CM has ensured that the people are not alone in these tough times; catastrophes of this nature have an economic and financial impact on the lives of the victims. The CM has effectively recognised the potential financial difficulty that many of the victims might face due to the disaster and for this reason, Dhami has announced an interim compensation of Rs 1.5 Lakh to the victims. This announcement has provided financial security to the victims and ensured that the citizens feel that the state is always there to support and shield its citizens.
Another immediate action that the Dhami Government has taken is to order the demolition of two hotels in Joshimath. These hotels are considered to be unsafe and are thus to be demolished. This action by the government draws our attention towards the commitment of the government to deal with the disaster effectively and ensure that the situation is not further aggravated.
Significance of Joshimath
Jyotirmath is one of the four main institutions founded by Adi Shankaracharya, the others being those at Shringeri, Puri, Dwarka, and Kanchi. Jyotirmath is the uttarmnya matha, or northern monastery. The word “Shankaracharya” appears on their heads. This matha is in charge of the Atharvaveda, in accordance with the tradition started by Adi Shankara. Jyotirmath is adjacent to Badrinath, a popular destination for pilgrims. Travellers heading to the Valley of Flowers National Park or Guru Gobind Ghat may use this location as a base camp. Badrinarayan is worshipped at the Narasimha temple among a pantheon of gods. Adi Sankara is credited with creating the ruling god, Lord Narasimha. It is one of the “Divya Desams,” the 108 Vishnu temples venerated by the 12 Alvars or Tamil poet-saints. With this, it becomes an undisputable fact that Joshimath is a culturally and traditionally rich city with its own distinct history. Hence, it is in our interest to save the symbol of our culture.
Strategic Importance of Joshimath
Having talked about the historical and religious importance of Joshimath, we can’t shy away from talking about the strategic importance of Joshimath. Joshimath is the last border town that also falls under seismic zone V. The recent Catastrophe in Joshimath road leading to China Border have also developed cracks on them. Joshimath-Malari border road has cracks, which might be a big setback keeping in mind our recent developments with our neighbour China. It is also known that the Indian army has more than 20,000 troops and heavy military installations across the Joshimath area, which guards our Line of Actual control. It is not just important to make sure that the roads are fully functional for any defence movement to take place but also a matter of priority for the administration to find solutions to the bigger problem.
Suggestions to save Joshimath
1) Strengthening the boulders: It is advised to avoid removing boulders and rocks from the base of hills in landslide-prone areas as such a removal decreases toe support and increases the likelihood of landslides.
2) Sealing of cracks: Any cracks that have developed on slopes must be sealed. This should be done to prevent any further damage the cracks might lead to.
3)Tree Solution: It is also recommended that the major planting of trees in the landslide zone, particularly between Marwari and Joshimath, is done, and it is strongly advised against cutting down trees there, for it is the trees that keep the soil-bound.
4) Stop Slope Cultivation: It is an undisputed fact that slope cultivation can loosen the soil; such a loosening significantly adds to the risk of landslides which is undesirable at the moment.
5) Healthy Construction Practices: All unsafe buildings should be removed from the area, along with the formation of an expert committee to reform the existing building regulations in such a way that any new building does not aggravate the current situation.
6) Seepage infrastructure: it is strongly advised that Joshimath should be provided with adequate infrastructure to ensure proper seepage of water, including rain water, to prevent the washing away and the loosening of the soil. Such a measure would reduce the risk of landslides to a significant extent.
7) Rehabilitation of the Locals: the state can formulate policies to ensure the rehabilitation of the victims of the current catastrophe, along with the offering of incentives to the existing local population to migrate to less risky areas; such a policy would significantly reduce the building requirements in the town of Joshimath averring the risk at hand.
The Joshimath catastrophe is not just a Uttarakhand problem but a national problem and should be treated that way. It’s high time political parties should rise above political lines and discuss how to prevent such crises from happening again. Politicising the entire issue will not take us anywhere and it should be prevented. Joshimath is a symbol of our national identity, and we must do everything in our command to protect our rich cultural, religious and strategic Joshimath.
(The writer is a social activist. He hails from Kotabagh, a small village in Nainital District. Having done his Masters in Public Policy, Mrityunjay is also authoring a book on Public Policy issues of Uttrakahand)