Home / Opinion / Views /  Joshimath and the need to regulate economic activity in hills more sensibly

The Panchatantra has a tale of four friends, three scholars and the butt of their jokes. Walking through a jungle, they come upon a bunch of bones. The scholars see an opportunity to put their learning to practical use. One puts the bones together into a skeleton. Another clothes the skeleton with flesh, blood and skin. Before the third learned one could bring the animal to life, their less erudite friend tells them to stop, as the body they have reconstructed is that of a lion. They laugh at him, and he climbs a tree. The three scholars bring the lion to life, and it promptly makes a hearty meal of them. The tale is supposed to illustrate the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. It has a bearing on human intervention to alter nature.

“Joshimath is a deposit of sand and stone — it is not the main rock — hence it was not suitable for a township. Vibrations produced by blasting, heavy traffic, etc., will lead to a disequilibrium in natural factors…" That is from the MC Mishra Committee report on Joshimath, dating back to 1976. Mishra was the district collector and headed a committee of 18 members, who, presumably, had more technical expertise than what an IAS officer would possess. Forewarned, clearly, is not the same as forearmed.

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The report urged restrictions on heavy construction, agriculture on slopes and felling of trees. It recommended construction of pucca drainage to stop seepage of rainwater, proper sewage system, and cement blocks on riverbanks to prevent erosion. Probably, these recommendations would come in handy to prevent other towns of Uttarakhand subsiding the way Joshimath has.

The Himalayas are relatively young, as geological formations go. They are still rising, as the tectonic plate on which the Indian subcontinent rests moves northwards, crushing against the Eurasian landmass. Himalayan formations do not have the solidity of older mountain ranges. That is why it is easier to build tunnels through the Alps than through the Himalayas.

There probably are engineering solutions that can still bore tunnels through the Himalayas, without making the mass of the mountain atop the tunnel collapse. But they have to be sought out and adopted. More importantly, these would probably cost more, and the funding must be found, after satisfying that the cost-benefit calculus still works out.

A more difficult task is managing the social processes that undermine towns on Himalayan heights. The latter house two kinds of magnets for people from the plains: shrines and holy springs that attract the religious, and the so-called hill stations that offer respite from the heat, dust and smog of quotidian life for the well-heeled willing to spend some money on short getaways.

As more and more people get to afford either spiritual excursions or straightforward pursuits of pleasure, the number of those making it to the Himalayan heights goes up, as does built-up accommodation, vehicular traffic and road construction to facilitate the traffic. This activity brings prosperity to the residents of the hills.

To guard against the subsidence of towns, a la Joshimath, severe limits would have to be placed on the number of people allowed to fulfil their spiritual or hedonistic urges. The easiest way to ration the Himalayan opportunity is to price it high. But that would be a very elite solution. First-come, first-served or the drawing of lots might be preferred, instead. These need to be rigorously implemented, whatever methods are preferred, without fear or favour. That is a challenge in India, tougher than adopting cutting-edge construction methods.

But Joshimath raises the same fundamental challenges that citizens and governments have to squarely confront, given the risk of climate change.

Many creatures alter nature, from burrowing ants to dam-building beavers, but none as drastically as do humans. Humans engage in production, defined as altering what exists in nature to make it more useful for themselves. As their understanding of the laws of nature and the ability to use this understanding to change nature increase, the greater also needs to be the ability to identify the limits of such change.

People talk of saving the planet. The planet does not require saving: it will settle into a new equilibrium, after a landslide, earthquake, global warming, melting of the ice caps or an entire town’s sinking. It is humanity, whose survival is put at risk.

Human activity needs to be informed by wisdom, not just knowledge. Or else, we will have many more Joshimaths.

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