I have travelled to Joshimath thrice in the last two decades and every time I visited the place, I saw it through a fresh prism. During my recent visit, I observed that it is also home to beautiful roses. Joshimath is famous for the Narsingh temple where Lord Badri or Vishnu is worshipped during winter. Adiguru Shankracharya received enlightenment under a 2,400-year-old mulberry tree in this town in the ninth century.
The New Year certainly didn’t augur well for the hill town en route to the Badrinath shrine in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. When a few days ago, I saw pictures of cracks widening in Joshimath, a mood of despondency set in. As the cracks widened, the government swung into action and started shifting the affected people to safer places. But it’s not the first time that these cracks were seen. They had set in almost a decade ago but we forgot them after the 2013 Kedarnath deluge.
The questions that come to mind when one witnesses a disaster of this magnitude are - what is the fault of the people and why should they be paying a heavy price for urban development?
The peace and tranquillity of the people of Joshimath were disturbed when work started on NTPC’s 520-megawatt (MW) Tapovan Vishnugad dam almost a decade ago. The government gave permission for another big project – the Helang bypass – which is part of the Chardham all-weather highway. These two big development projects are allegedly being held responsible for the Joshimath crisis. Buckling under pressure, the government has now suspended both these projects. But again, the government kept waiting till the crisis set in.
During this crisis, NTPC which is constructing the Tapovan Vishnugad project, has been caught in an unpleasant situation. NTPC’s plan to foray into the hydropower sector in Uttarakhand has all along remained a bumpy ride. The state-owned maharatna company suffered a major setback in 2010 when its 600 MW Loharinag Pala project on the river Bhagirathi was scrapped on environmental grounds following an agitation by late social activist GD Agarwal. By the time the project was shelved, NTPC had already invested Rs 600 crore which literally went down the drain.
Though NTPC was successful in commissioning its first 800 MW Koldam hydel project on the river Satluj in Himachal Pradesh in 2015, the company came in for another shock when its 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project was badly damaged in the Dhauliganga-Rishiganga deluge in February 2021 in Chamoli district where over 205 people lost their lives. As many as 140 people were killed in the Tapovan Vishnugaud project alone. In 2021, questions were raised about whether these hydel power projects should be allowed in the first place. As time passed, the government permitted NTPC to resume construction activities around Joshimath but no efforts were made to protect its residents.
NTPC, which has already invested around Rs 5,000 crore in the project, may want to complete it at any cost. Local people, who have been holding demonstrations regularly, have blamed NTPC for the cracks and water seeping in several places. They have claimed that the Tapovan Vishnugaud project’s underground head race tunnel near the town is the main culprit. This is a 12.5 km long head race tunnel which will bring water from the barrage to the underground power plant for producing electricity. Already, an 8.5 km stretch of the tunnel has been built. Under the government order, all construction activities in the Tapovan Vishnugad project have since been stopped.
The carrying or bearing capacity of a particular hill area should be considered before taking any decision regarding development plans. Joshimath is facing the repercussions of unplanned aggressive development.
Concerned over the crisis brewing in Joshimath, the state government has over the last few days sent a team of experts comprising scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and IIT Roorkee to carry out a detailed assessment of the situation. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has also assured that the government would take all steps to mitigate the sufferings of the people of Joshimath.
In a recent statement in Rajya Sabha, the government stated that the Tapovan Vishnugad project was granted environmental clearance in 2005, which stipulates suitable standards and project-specific safeguard conditions regarding ecological flow, catchment area treatment, monitoring of the safeguards by a multi-disciplinary committee. There should have been round-the-clock monitoring of the project. Local people also claim that no mechanism was put in place to monitor these two big projects. We are not even aware of the number of trees that may have been felled in the name of development in and around this holy town.
The crisis is not limited to Joshimath alone. The situation is getting worse in other areas such as Nainital and Mussoorie due to the increasing tourist footfall and unplanned development. Tehri is another town that was allowed to be submerged in the large reservoir of the dam. No thought was given to the impact these projects had on the people living in the area. If we have to save these Himalayan towns from further deterioration, and future disasters, we have to focus on sustainable development and not aggressive unplanned development.Shishir Prashant is a senior journalist based in Dehradun. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.