Joshimath/Karnaprayag/Chamba: When Akhilesh Kothiyal first heard of Joshimath sinking earlier this month, he was hit by a sense of deja vu. Kothiyal is a shop owner in Chamba, a town located some 100 kilometers from Joshimath. What Kothiyal had been grappling with for years was now unfolding in the nearby township.
“It’s been four years since our house started cracking and the ground beneath our feet shifting,” he said, standing on the balcony of his two-story home, its ledge slanting precariously.
Kothiyal added: “Let me guess — they (the government) will form many high-level committees and groups to investigate the problem. But who knows if those findings will ever be released. In our case, they never were.”
The problem in Chamba is not as widespread as in Joshimath, where over 700 homes have been declared unsafe.
According to a Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) report released last week, Joshimath experienced a subsidence of around five centimeters in just 12 days, between 27 December 2022 and 8 January 2023. The report was taken down from the ISRO website after the central government issued a gag order on sharing “confusing” information with the public at a time of crisis.
Half a dozen teams of experts — from the fields of disaster management, geology, hydrology, and glaciology — have rushed to Joshimath over the past few weeks to determine what triggered the rapid subsidence. But the seeds for its eventuality were sown decades ago, and the clues are visible, say experts.
While the natural topography makes places like Joshimath vulnerable to land subsidence, the pressure of human activity has exacerbated it, research has shown.
Among the biggest contributors to this problem is “unplanned urbanisation”, which has brought with it greater migration, the erasure of traditional forms of disaster-resilient infrastructure, and construction that doesn’t take into account the fragile Himalayan geology, add experts.
Rapid urbanisation and lack of town planning are the common threads linking Joshimath and several other towns in the state experiencing similar challenges, such as Chamba.
“At the government level there will be a lot of inspection going on,” said R. Meenakshi Sundaram, secretary to the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, speaking about the situation.
He added: “Couple of years back there had been a decision to have district development authorities for regulation of construction. Subsequently there was public opposition to the move so the government took it back. Now the government is again reconsidering bringing that back.”
A buildup of risks
A 2018 paper of the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (UDMMC) had identified eight areas along the Main Central Thrust (MCT) of the higher Himalayas, including Joshimath, which are prone to land subsidence. The MCT is a major tectonic dislocation, or fault, along the Himalayas, making it particularly vulnerable to seismic activity.
“Such sites are very critical for the slope instability and these three factors i.e., toe erosion (erosion of the bottom of the mountain), vicinity of structural dislocation (MCT) and road cutting are dominant triggering factors behind most notorious landslides in Uttarakhand,” stated the paper.
A site for both tourism and pilgrimage, this region often carries a load much more than it can bear. Badrinath has a daily capacity of 12,000 to 14,000 people, but over 22 lakh people flocked the area as part of the Char Dham yatra last year.
The crowds make for a lucrative earning opportunity. A 2018 survey by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) found that between 30 and 57 per cent of households in villages along the yatra route depended on tourism.
“As a result of this, there is immense financial incentive to build more infrastructure for the tourist season. We gather that most of the infrastructure is not earthquake resistant due to reduced costs and lack of enforcement measures. Driven by tourism businesses, some infrastructure has been built in the dangerous floodplains of the region despite the risk of flooding,” the USDMA survey said.
Around 40 per cent of the hotels and homestays in Joshimath were reportedly built after 2015.
“In India, we do not have any clear thinking of sustainable development in mountain regions. The first need of mountain cities is to have a carrying capacity study. As part of the Char Dham yatra pariyojana committee we did a quick and limited study, and found that places had either reached their capacity or would do so within the next few years,” said Ravi Chopra, senior researcher with the People’s Science Institute and former chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed committee for the Char Dham road widening project. The committee assesses the impact of the project on the Himalayas.
Unplanned townships are an epidemic across Himalayan states, research suggests, making them more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Neelakshi Joshi, a postdoctoral researcher with the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development in Germany conducted research on urban planning in the town of Almora in Uttarakhand, between 2016 and 2019. In her survey of 150 households, she found that most households relied on the advice of their building contractors, “However, informal building professionals lack the training and skills to address risk in the built form”.
Most households in Uttarakhand depend on septic tanks and pits to service their sanitation needs, with the exception of those in the state’s Tehri Garhwal and Haridwar districts, a state-sponsored survey has shown.
Heavy rainfall and lack of proper drainage and sewerage systems allow for water to seep into the ground, weakening the foundation. The Himalayas are a landslide-prone area, and landmass isn’t always stable to begin with.
Joshi further found that of the 39 mountainous urban centers in the state, only nine had land use maps, three of which were “updated and valid”.
“Essentially, what I found was that there was a buildup of risks at every stage. First, people relied on what their contractors told them about how to build on their land. Second, the lack of land maps meant there was no master planning, and no indication of where danger zones might be,” Joshi told ThePrint. “Land use maps are an essential part of urban planning. Unless there’s a plan to begin with, no risks can be factored into building.”
Geologists have long called for detailed geological and geotechnical investigations into areas vulnerable to land subsidence and landslides to avoid a systematic failure of disaster resilience. However, the state, district, and municipal bodies have failed to do so at scale, say experts, despite land subsidence affecting several parts of the state — from Bhatwari and Bagi in Uttarkashi district, to Garbyang and Talla Dhumar in Pithoragarh, to now Joshimath in Chamoli.
In 2005, Piyoosh Rautela, now executive director of the USDMA, highlighted the media’s role in providing visibility to slow-moving disasters like land subsidence, particularly in remote parts of the state, that can often act as a catalyst for the government to act.
“It is a common observation that most slow onslaught disasters pass unnoticed by the media even though these cause heavy and long-term disruption of livelihoods and economy,” he wrote, adding, “Media attention is, however, a function of human lives lost (that signiﬁes sensation) in the disaster event and it often helps in building pressure on authorities for prompt and adequate relief and rehabilitation support for the disaster victims.”
‘Reckless’ construction projects
Apart from the mushrooming of unplanned townships, the state of Uttarakhand is facilitating many development projects, like the Rishikesh–Karnaprayag railway line, the Char Dham road widening project, hydro power plants, the construction of helipads near the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and the Joshimath Auli ropeway, to name a few. The construction involves digging into the mountain slopes and blasting boulders, both of which contribute to the instability of the region. In the upper Alaknanda valley, researchers have found nearly 30 per cent of landslides could be attributed to road construction.
In Chamba, which is in the Tehri Garhwal district, in the lesser Himalayas, residents claimed they noticed cracks appearing in their homes soon after construction of a 440-meter tunnel for the Char Dham project started in 2019.
According to Kothiyal and his brother Shashank, the agency carrying out the construction used heavy machinery that caused the house to rattle and shake, shortly after which cracks started to develop. The rigmarole of official inquiries began, and the family said they were told they would either be moved or the damages caused to their house would be taken care of by the administration. However, despite a written agreement with the tehsildar, neither has happened, the family claimed.
“Several agencies came to do their surveys to find out how this happened, why it happened. But they never formally shared the findings with us. Unofficially, one of the engineers explained to me that our house has started leaning towards the tunnel,” claimed Shashank.
According to S.P. Sati, a geologist with H.N.B. Garhwal University, while the construction of the tunnel appears to be the immediate cause for cracks in the houses, what explains their slow deterioration is the terrain upon which they stand.
“The rocks found in Chamba are phyllite, which are very prone to erosion. Blasting and drilling to create the tunnel would have loosened the rocks in the area. There is also extensive construction and excavation of the hill in Chamba, which has destabilised the region further,” he explained.
In Karnaprayag, which, like Joshimath, falls in Chamoli district, residents of Bahuguna Nagar blamed the construction of a road in 2021 for the formation of deep cracks in their homes. The municipality found at least 28 houses had cracks.
Rakesh Rawat, who lives in a two-story house in Bahuguna Nagar, with 11 other members of his family, claimed the neighbourhood had vehemently opposed the use of large JCB machines to pave the road, but that their protests were not heeded. A portion of his house was acquired and destroyed for the road construction.
“I also requested them to acquire the whole house, but the NHIDCL (National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation), which was carrying out the project, refused. Just look at the state of our house. We’re forced to live in this. Who will pay?” he said, pointing at a deep fissure on the wall.
The houses in the town appear almost stacked on a steep slope of the mountain. In the monsoons, water rushes down and sometimes seeps into them, Hari Om, a Kathak teacher whose house had a large fissure running through it, claimed. To make matters worse, Less than 20 per cent of houses in Chamoli are connected to a sewer line, and depend on open drains to carry waste water.
Last week, a team from IIT Roorkee was sent to Karnaprayag to conduct a survey to study the area and determine the precise reasons for the cracks here. ThePrint reached a spokesperson for the institute over phone, but she declined comment, citing orders from the central government.
In 2003, geologist Aniruddha Unniyal had found that parts of Karnyaprayag were severely landslide prone and sat on incompetent rocks.
“The cumulative effects of natural processes and anthropogenic activities may act as causative factors for these potential slide zones. Factors that accelerate the sliding activity include heavy monsoonal precipitation, excessive seepage of water caused by blocking of surface drainage, narrowing of the courses of seasonal streams, absence of proper sewage system and blocked scuppers in the town,” he wrote.
The need for better planning
Experts say one key aspect to mitigating the problem is strengthening building bylaws and introducing urban planning to areas that are rapidly evolving.
“In this situation, the biggest contribution would be to create drainage channels. Urban drainage needs to be planned,” said geologist Sati, adding, “Construction work too should be controlled and approved on a case-to-case basis, since places are reaching their carrying capacity.”
According to Joshi, a step in the right direction would be to close off any existing basic knowledge gaps through the creation of up-to-date land use maps, which clearly demarcate danger zones.
“In Uttarakhand, most town planning centers are in the plains, like Dehradun or Kathgodam. First, these need to shift to the hilly regions that need better planning. Local universities, NGOs, and municipalities should come together to conduct large-scale surveys on land use, too,” she said. “The government will be able to advise people once this information is there,” she added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)