Home / Opinion / Views /  Joshimath’s emergency memo on sustainability

Joshimath, in the upper reaches of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, is not just another hill town. It is a gateway to significant religious shrines, popular skiing slopes and a ‘world heritage’ valley of flowers, all of which draw visitors in droves. This ancient settlement, however, has been unsettled by a literal shift of the ground under its residents’ feet. Hairline splits have turned into gaping cracks in roads, walls and floors, exposing the area’s fragility. The town, said to rest on the sediment of landslides, is rendered even more unstable by its sensitive seismic location. As panicky townsfolk seek safety and portents of a quake make news audiences across India hold their breath, central and state machinery for disaster management has been mobilized. On Sunday, the Prime Minister held a meeting to review the situation, even as evacuations have begun and all construction work has been stopped. This underscores the gravity of the threat. The administrative response, though, represents an awakening that has come almost half a century late.

It was back in 1976 that an official committee had warned of the fragile ecology of this area and advised against heavy building projects. Since then, several panels have repeated that warning, which went largely unheeded. For today’s crisis, ecologists blame tunnel work done for an NTPC hydro power project as a proximate cause. Red flags had also been raised over road expansion along the state’s Char Dham pilgrimage route, wider roads for which would also enable us to cart heavier artillery to border zones with China. As Uttarakhand has been hit in recent years by a string of freak weather events—like the 2013 cloudburst in Kedarnath—that can be traced to climate change, the impact of global warming on high-altitude snow-cover and glaciers only adds to the worry. With multiple threats looming over this region, the ‘bijlee-sadak’ model of development (led by electricity and roads) should have been put to an especially tough test of what the land could sustain. But infrastructure plans seem to have got priority.

A full-scale rescue should be mounted so that no resident of Joshimath is left in danger. Technical expertise has been deployed to monitor the town’s stability and issue alerts should it worsen. While the state apparatus goes about its job of keeping people safe, what must not go missing is the introspection needed among policymakers over ‘development’ and why it must never be a reckless pursuit. Although the benefits of basic infrastructure are obvious and its role as an enabler of economic growth increasingly appreciated, a push that does not accord scientific inputs their due respect could prove counter-productive for this very agenda. Already, voices from Joshimath have arisen against an approach alleged to be tone-deaf to the well-being of locals. As various projects across the country need assorted environmental clearances, the suspicion must not gain wind that ecological concerns get brushed aside all too easily for public projects whose budgets enrich special interests. For the process to retain credibility, it can never be pursued at all cost. This is a message that the dispensation at the Centre, which never shies away from showcasing its ‘concrete’ achievements, would do well to internalize and act upon. The government needs to secure not just the people of Joshimath, but also the broad reputation of ‘development’, which is best done by paying its ‘sustainable’ prefix the attention it deserves.

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