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Why Joshimath in Uttarakhand is sinking so terribly?

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By: Vinod Chandrashekhar Dixit

Joshimath is the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib and international skiing destination Auli. It is the winter seat of Lord Badrinath, whose idol is brought from the main Badrinath temple in Joshimath to the Vasudev temple every winter. Joshimath is an important pilgrimage center for Hindus. The unfolding disaster in Uttarakhand’s historic town of Joshimath shows why the section of the Himalayas in this state is extremely fragile.

Joshimath, located in a fragile geological terrain, is dogged by construction, growing population, tourism and other human-driven pressures without adequate precautionary counter-measures, scientists and citizens seeking environment-friendly development. It is a weighty reminder that we are messing up with our environment to an extent that is irreversible.

The Shankaracharya Math in the city has also developed cracks at many places, posing a threat to the Math. According to the expert report, Land subsidence in Joshimath is primarily due to the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project and is a very grave reminder that people are messing up with the environment to an extent that is irreversible. Joshimath is a clear example of what one should not do in the Himalayas. The number of devotees in Char Dham towns was 24 lakh in 2017 and nearly doubled to 45 lakh by 2022. The burden on two major hill stations, Mussoorie and Nainital, is also increasing. With the exception of the two seasons affected by the Covid pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting these tourist destinations,

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured all possible help to save Joshimath. As per the reports, concerns about subsidence in Joshimath date back for decades. A scientific panel had in 1976 underscored that Joshimath is situated “on an old landslide zone and is sinking” and recommended that heavy construction be banned in the area.

In the year 1970 also incidents of land subsidence in Joshimath were reported. A panel set up under the chairmanship of Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra had submitted a report in 1978, saying that major construction works should not be carried out in the city and the Niti and Mana valleys as these areas are situated on moraines — a mass of rocks, sediment, and soil transported and deposited by a glacier. There have been numerous climate risk events recorded like high rainfall events triggering landslides

Land subsidence has been going on slowly in Joshimath for quite some time but it has increased over the past week with huge cracks appearing in houses, fields and roads. The appearance of cracks on many roads and houses across Joshimath, due to land subsidence, is neither a new phenomenon in this region — nor a reversible one. The main problem has been the fact that the town has come up on relatively loose soil, deposited by landslides triggered by earthquakes. It is feared that the Himalayan town may be on the verge of extinction. If things aren’t controlled soon, other major areas in Uttarakhand like Mussoorie, Nainital and Dharchula may soon face a similar situation.

The infrastructure development has been going on unchecked. Rampant infrastructure development without a plan is making the fragile Himalayan ecosystem even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change which acts as a force-multiplier. It is the need of the hour that the entire planning should be done at the bio-regional scale that should include what is allowed and what is not and has to be very stringent. We need to have the formation of some strong rules and regulations.

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