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Joshimath Sinking: Multiple governments ignored warnings from scientists and geologists

The first warning regarding the Joshimath zone’s vulnerability came as far back as the late 1930s. Since then, subsequent governments have chosen to ignore the red flags. Bhaswati Sengupta reports for The Probe.

By Bhaswati Sengupta
New Update

publive-image Images of landslides and devastation in Joshimath | Photo courtesy: Social Media

“The government has sealed our hotel. We have faced heavy losses worth several crores. I am not in a position to talk more,” said Thakur Singh Rana, handing over the phone to his son. His voice was still trembling at the unexpected turn of events. Rana owns Hotel Malari Inn in Joshimath. The government has banned the hotel’s operations along with Hotel Mount View under the Disaster Management Act 2005.

Thakur Singh Rana’s son Kamlesh Rana says most people in the region knew how vulnerable the area was. “Everybody knew how dangerous the situation was. But all chose to do nothing about it. We received a notice from the government on 27 December, which said that we cannot run our operations, and immediately we stopped our operations.”

Speaking about the precarious situation, Rana says their hotel’s condition entirely depends on an adjacent hotel that has developed cracks and is now leaning towards their hotel. “There is another property next to our hotel called Hotel Mount View. There are cracks in the foundational structure of that building, because of which that hotel is leaning towards our hotel. Anything can happen anytime, and we are all distraught.”

The Joshimath area of Uttarakhand has been declared disaster-prone because of the rising cases of land subsidence. Over 600 buildings have developed cracks in Joshimath so far. However, experts have told The Probe that successive governments should have declared Joshimath a ‘sinking zone’ decades ago.

Professor DM Banerjee, Emeritus scientist at the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), says that years ago in 1938, in the book The Throne of The Gods - an account of the first Swiss expedition to the Himalayas - by Arnold Heim and August Gansser, the vulnerability of the geological plains of the area have been explained. “Multiple warnings were sounded. Way back in 1938, Professor Heim and Professor Gansser had studied the entire region and beyond, and they had reported that this area was unstable and should not be subjected to major construction. But nobody took them seriously, and they thought these were just foreign geologists speaking.”

publive-image Images of cracks on the walls of a residence in Joshimath | Photo courtesy: Social media

Professor Banerjee adds that the Geological Survey of India also had carried out its own investigation related to the vulnerability of the region. “Many years ago, the Geological Survey of India carried out an investigation. Even that report speaks about how unstable this region is. Even if the government did not take the scientists or academicians seriously, at least it should have taken note of the Geological Survey of India’s report.”

Several reports in the past have revealed glaring details about Joshimath’s vulnerability. Nearly five decades ago, the union government had appointed the then collector of Garhwal, MC Mishra, to assess why Joshimath was sinking. Even when the Mishra committee had stated that Joshimath could sink if construction work continued, the committee’s recommendations relating to banning construction activity were not implemented by the government then. The apathy continued as every successive government chose to ignore the warning signals.

Shrikant Dimri, another local hotelier in the region whose Hotel Mount View is on the verge of collapse, says he has seen large-scale construction activities in the town as far back as 2007, resulting in building cracks. “My Hotel Mount View is completely damaged, and I have shut the operations from December 27 itself. My hotel had 30 rooms. You can imagine the kind of loss people like us are bearing because of this. From 20 December onwards the problem started reaching its peak. But this is not an issue that just started this year. This has been going on for many years now. Local people have been raising their voices against these concerns for a long time, but literally, nothing has been done about it. As far as I can remember, there were construction works in the region from 2007 itself, which had resulted in cracks in many buildings in the vicinity.”

publive-image Letter written by Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti to the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand | Courtesy: Atul Sati

Speaking to The Probe, Atul Sati, Convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, narrates how the Samiti had written to the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand on December 2 last year red flagging the construction activities and the ensuing cracks in the buildings in the region. The copy of the letter The Probe has accessed reveals why Joshimath will sink if timely action is not initiated.

“On December 2, we wrote a letter to the Chief Minister regarding all the issues, but there was absolutely no response from the CM or his office. We have met many officials in the process. We didn’t get a positive response from any, and it was too late when the Secretary of Disaster Management finally responded. The situation in Joshimath is very grim now. We are not happy with the way the government has responded to this crisis, and therefore we have decided to continue with our protests,” asserts Sati.

“The town has been developed over debris. This region is tectonically active and falls under seismic zone 5. This town was built at a height of 6000 feet. There are multiple structures on the slopes, which are unstable zones. In this region, there are many rivers that flow down towards Joshimath, which has caused a lot of erosion. Joshimath has been a gateway to the Himalayas. Most importantly, there are multiple developmental and construction activities taking place in the area. The load of the structures have exceeded the strength the foundational rocks can bear. The 2021 heavy rains and flash floods have also added to the burden,” notes Dr Kalachand Sain, a geo-scientist and Director at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology from Dehradun.

Dr Sain explains that poor town planning has further aggravated the problem. “The town has been built without appropriate drainage and sewerage facilities because of which the natural flow of water has been obstructed, and the water is taking a different strenuous course, which is further adding to the pressure. The government, the local public, the scientific fraternity, administrative authorities, and tourists have all played a huge role in today’s situation. Nearly 50 years have passed since the report was released on Joshimath, which clearly said that Joshimath could sink if development activities continue but unfortunately, in our country, we only act when we witness a tragedy. We don’t try to avert such man-made disasters.”