Government imposes ban on any comment or interaction by scientific institutions on Joshimath subsidence


Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in a report released after reported sinking of Joshimath town of Uttarakhand stated that Joshimath experienced a subsidence of around 5 centimeters in just 12 days, between 27 December 2022 and 8 January 2023. National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Hyderabad, another well-known scientific body also said in its survey conducted with the help of latest technology that between April and November 2022, Joshimath recorded slow subsidence of up to 8.9 cm. Both the reports were available on social media. According to another ground survey, parts of Joshimath might have sunk by almost 2.2 feet, far higher than the NRSC figures of subsidence. Surely, such findings are of much embarrassment for the BJP-run governments, both at the Centre and in that state, since they are held accountable for one after another disaster in this Himalayan region, not due to any natural calamity but because of reckless urbanization, modernization and deforestation ignoring warnings after warnings by the scientific community. So, the National Disaster Management Authority (the apex body for disaster management in India, headed by the Prime Minister) on 13 January 2023 ordered several research institutes including the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing in Dehradun and the Geological Survey of India, Kolkata, that scientists in these institutions should not interact with the media or share data on social media about land sinking in Joshimath. ‘‘It is seen government institutions are releasing data related to the subject that on social media and they are also interacting with the media on their own interpretation of the situation. It is creating confusion not only among affected residents but also among citizens of the country. The issue has been highlighted in a meeting of Home Minister on 12 January,’’ government order read. Following the order, both the ISRO and NRSC reports, disappeared from public domain. Uttarakhand state authorities have also claimed that the ISRO report is not the institute’s ‘‘official take’’. Clearly this has been an attempt to hide the truth and shield the government authorities from targeted blame. But it is a futile attempt to smoulder fire under ashes. ‘‘Government has not learnt anything from the disasters of 2013—Kedarnath floods and 2021—Rishi Ganga flash flooding’’, observed enraged experts. And they all are seething from within.

Scientists have long been warning about the vulnerability of Joshimath
For about five decades since the MC Mishra Commission report in 1976, scientists and experts have been warning about the vulnerability of Joshimath which is situated on an old landslide and seismic zone. A report prepared by that Commission headed by MC Mishra, Garhwal Collector, pointed out, inter alia, that ‘‘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 the natural factors’’. Over the years, the Geological Survey of India and the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) had also been cautioning against construction and big projects in the area. In the year 2013, massive floods ravaged Uttarakhand. Over 4,000 people died in the Kedarnath Valley alone. After that, the Supreme Court directed the union environment ministry to form an Expert Body to assess whether the devastation from floods had worsened due to the presence of hydropower projects. In the year 2014, the Expert Body, which was headed by the Dehradun-based environmentalist Ravi Chopra, submitted a report supported by strong evidence of the distressing impact of hydropower projects in the state. Yet, the Uttarakhand chief minister shamelessly said twice that the Joshimath land subsidence issue is a ‘‘natural disaster and not caused by anyone’’. (Times of India 14-01-23)

Scientific advices are flagrantly ignored
It bears recall that expressing concern, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on December 5, 2014, stating: ‘‘any decision on developmental projects especially hydropower projects should … be on very strong and sound footings with scientific back up’’. After that, Tare Committee, another body of experts, in its report submitted in February 2015 recommended abandonment of all ‘developmental’ projects wrote that considering the negative impact those would have on Uttarakhand’s ecology and biodiversity. But despite all these reports, the MoEFCC, in June 2015 formed another 11-member committee chaired by B.P. Das, a.k.a. EB-II, to examine the issue once again. But a government level meeting held on 25 February 2019, in the chamber of the principal secretary to Prime Minister, superseded the EB-II report and it was decided not to consider any new or proposed project on the Ganga and its tributaries in Uttarakhand. However, it allowed proceeding with the seven projects assessed to be ‘‘more than 50% complete’’. A report of the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (UDMMC) also had identified in 2018 eight areas along the Main Central Thrust (MCT) of the higher Himalayas, including Joshimath, which are prone to land subsidence. The MCT is a major tectonic dislocation, or fault, along the Himalayas, making it particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. Geologists have long called for detailed geological and geotechnical investigations into areas vulnerable to land subsidence and landslides to avoid a systematic failure of disaster resilience. However, the Centre, state, district, and municipal bodies paid no heed. Instead, there has been epidemic rise in unplanned townships, hydel projects, tourism and pilgrimage infrastructure and other commercial activities which, besides destroying the rock structure and obstructing natural flow of a number of rivers are also creating a load much more than the land can bear. Badrinath has a daily capacity of 12,000 to 14,000 people, but over 22 lakh people flocked the area as part of the ‘Char Dham yatra’ (visiting four sites of Hindu pilgrimage in one tour). So, disasters are occurring recurrently taking away precious lives and destroying home and hearth of many poor locals.

Catastrophes of recent past
As is known to all, a major disaster occurred in the region in February 2021. Burst glacier also swept away roads and five bridges which connected adjacent thirteen villages and took away over 200 precious lives. Two hydropower projects—13.2 MW Rishiganga near Raini, and 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad near Tapovan village— were completely damaged. Geologists opined that increasing climate change and global warming had accelerated glacial reduction. Himalayan glaciers had been retreating faster than anywhere else in the world since the 1990s. Some of them were of the opinion that it was a landslide, and not just glacial outburst. Residents of Joshimath blamed the excavation work being undertaken as part of the construction of the two hydel power project as one cause for the sinking of their town. The construction of the much clamoured Char Dham project—an ambitious 900 km-long all weather road through the state to promote religious tourism—was also identified as another cause, according to experts. Some held that the tunnelling exercise conducted by NTPC caused the disaster. The economic losses from damages to the projects alone exceed Rs 1,625 crore. It came to be known that researchers of Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar, Punjab, had predicted a large-scale surface displacement in Joshimath town as early as 2021. It was, therefore, evident that governments had pushed such highly risky ‘developmental’ projects through despite all reports opining to the contrary. Rightly observed the worried scientists and experts that while development is necessary, it cannot come at such environmental or human costs.

Sufferers are held guilty of knocking the door of judiciary
After that major catastrophe of February 2021, a group of petitioners, in a public interest litigation (PIL), claimed that the use of explosives during project construction had weakened the already fragile hills, thereby increasing the frequency and intensity of landslips in the region. The situation then, they claimed, was such that for safety, the villagers from Raini sometimes had to take shelter in nearby forests. Considering this, the important question of rehabilitation of the affected villagers was raised in the PIL. The petition also sought to fix accountability of the hydropower companies for ‘‘criminal negligence’’, since 95% of deaths happened at the hydropower sites. In the absence of any early warning system, the hydropower workers had no information about the incoming flood and hence were trapped inside the tunnels. But to everyone’s dismay, the Uttarakhand high court on 14 July 2021, imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on five petitioners who were seeking cancellation of two hydropower projects, which were sites of maximum death and disaster. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its report on 7 August 2021 warned of Himalayan glaciers losing mass due to global warming and of an increase in ‘‘heavy precipitation’’ events that might trigger more landslides and floods in the region.

Volte face of environment ministry
Yet, the MoEFCC, in a marked drastic change of stance from 2014, filed another affidavit in the Supreme Court on 17 August 2021, saying that a consensus had been reached among it, the power ministry, the Jal Shakti ministry and the Uttarakhand government to continue work on seven hydropower projects. The new MoEFCC affidavit simply overrode its earlier decisions for reasons better known to it and stated that the seven projects ‘‘also form part of the 26 projects recommended by EB-II for implementation’’. Even, neither the deliberations in the prime minister’s office nor the visible climate change noticed in the region found any mention in the latest affidavit.

Futile attempt by BJP ministers to mislead people
What is further noticeable is the ludicrous argument advanced by the BJP ministers to mislead people. During his meeting with home minister Amit Shah in Delhi on Wednesday, Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami said ‘‘65% to 70% of Joshimath residents were leading a normal life and only 30% have been affected by land subsidence’’. Refuting that Atul Sati, convener of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, said. ‘‘If 30% of Joshimath, according to the CM, is in a state of distress, how can the remaining 70% be safe given the fact that our town is located on slopes that are made up of loose soil of landslide debris? It has been 20 days now, and the level of panic is only increasing.’’ Prakash Rawat, former block pramukh of Joshimath, said, ‘‘The town has shown subsidence from all directions. All nine wards, including ITBP and Army zones have developed cracks, fissures and land subsidence. Initially, with the CM visiting and the PMO keeping track, we felt assured. Now, we are not sure. It’s shocking to hear such an irresponsible statement.’’ Experts say subsidence has already affected over 35%-40% of Joshimath and that it’s ‘‘unlikely to stop’’. (Times of India-20-01-23) Dhami had to face tough questions from residents of Joshimath who claimed that the land subsidence in the township was because of ‘‘unscientific’’ development work even as he claimed that it is a ‘‘natural disaster’’. Asked about the cracks in houses in Chamoli’s Karnaprayag, he said, ‘‘It is an old problem. We are working to resolve it.’’ Despite the CM’s visit, protests by local residents continued in Joshimath demanding a suitable rehabilitation package. They did not allow the authorities to carry out the survey of unsafe structures and demolition, saying there should be clarity on the compensation being offered. (Hindustan Times 12-01-23) So far, 849 houses in Joshimath have developed cracks following land subsidence and 269 families have been moved to temporary relief centers. (Economic Times 21-01-23) Now fresh cracks have appeared on the Badrinath Highway. But Uttarakhand tourism minister claims that there is nothing to be so concerned about Uttarakhand. Only those who have built septic tanks under their houses are facing difficulties. (ABP 25-01-23) Alas! what can the BJP ministers say to hide their callousness and criminal negligence about ensuring safety of this picturesque town by going ahead with reaping commercial benefits at the cost of people’s life?

What is the moral of the story?
As we had pointed out earlier also while dwelling on the 2021 Chamoli catastrophe, the priority of the BJP-government is not development that genuinely contribute towards people’s economic-social-cultural benefits besides fully ensuring the safety and security of their life and livelihood, but commercial propositions that cater to the swelling coffer of the moneybags.
At the same time, ecological sustainability is subordinate to the narrow sectarian communal agenda of whipping Hindutva sentiment by facilitating pilgrimage to hilly shrines. So, the warnings of the scientific community are kept at bay, death and destruction caused by repeated landslides, flash floods and deluge are consigned to oblivion, protests of suffering people are ignored with alacrity and commercial ventures of private operators are flagged green. Savage appetite of profit maximization scores over subsistence of common toiling millions. This is the brutal face of fascist autocracy. And, regrettably, a section of the judiciary, in the name of upholding legality over legitimacy or natural justice, abets this barbarity of the government and takes the misery-stricken protesters to task.

How far-sighted was great Engels
Let us reiterate once again what great Engels had said long back: ‘‘Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. … at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws…The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect… retreats far into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling…In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions… are mostly quite the opposite in character.’’ (The Part Played by Labour in Transition from the Ape to Man) In other words, if we mindlessly assault nature, nature also retaliates with equal fury.

This murderous assault on nature must be stalled
With Uttarakhand heavily paying the price, panic button is also pressed in other Himalayan regions like Himachal Pradesh and North Bengal which are apprehended to be similarly turning fragile because of rapid urbanization and promotion of tourism industry. No one objects to better housing facility to the hill people nor is one opposed to better tourism amenities. But what is warranted is strict compliance with scientific advices while tickling with natural structures.
As pointed out by great Engels, we are to overcome hurdles of nature as well as tame it without tampering with the objective laws for progress of civilization. But over ambition of conquering nature recklessly is destined to backfire. Already rising global warming and environmental pollution are posing great threat to civilization and mankind.
Now, if aspects like seismic vulnerability and glacial calving are also overlooked to favour construction companies, private contractors and other agencies aligned with the ruling monopolists, it would only add to the criminality of the government. This onslaught must be stopped. and only a united, organized, powerful and concerted protest by all stakeholders-common people, of both the hills and the plain, scientists and other sections of right-thinking countrymen-surge forth with due vigour, can force the despotic government to bend before people’s demands and stop all such destructive acts.

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