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Joshimath: The Beginning or the End?

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By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

Joshimath was a man-made disaster. It will be replicated if we continue to use our widely varied environments in a single, inappropriate way. We recognised our inherent diversity when we created Linguistic States. Unlike the USA, we are not a melting pot where all communities have to merge into the Anglo-Saxon identity. We are a mosaic with every different chip supporting the entire beautiful picture. Single, fascist-like conformity would be as unacceptable as asking a man in Kerala to wear a kaftan and a Kashmiri to wear a mundu!  The beautiful Rann of Kutch hosts thundering herds of grey-fawn wild asses. They would die in the lush mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans hunted by Great Bengal tigers that drink saline water.

Our diversity is our strength and our unity. This is why the highlanders of our Himalayan state demanded separation from the huge lowlander state of Uttar Pradesh. In spite of this, we permitted Joshimath to grow as a plains town with high-rises and roads obstructing the natural flow of water and even a tunnel which reportedly punctured an aquifer supplying spring water to this town. This was all started before the birth of Uttarakhand but, sadly, it was continued through many changes of netas and even parties. Uttarakhandis repeatedly elected their netas from the hills of their Himalayan state. But all these highlanders continued the policies of the lowlanders. The Joshimath disaster was inevitable.

So, what is the difference between the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Himalayas? Virtually every ecological difference you can think of.  But, most critically, it is the difference between an adult and a child.

The Himalayas are the world’s greatest and highest range on earth; but it is also the youngest. Like a child it is still growing. If you put too much load on the back of a child, it will first try to throw it off. The earth tremors that tremble in our mountains are similar reactions.  Then, if that does not work, the child will try to shake off this cruel load. Earthquakes make our mountains the most seismically prone region in India. Finally, if the load is excruciatingly heavy, the child will collapse under its cruel burden. The child and its imposed load metaphor goes even further. Infants find it difficult to control their bladders. Our young mountains, too, cannot retain an excess of water, which is why drainage ditches are so important.

Water weighs one kilo per litre. Saturated slopes cannot hold an excess burden of precipitation and they burst out causing devastating landslides. It is just as simple as that. This is what happens when excess water is not allowed to flow through drainage channels because of impeding highway or other imposed barriers. Hillsides burdened with an overload of water burst out in devastated landslides. Similar things happen when tunnels are built.

The Tapovan Tunnel cost the lives of nearly 200 people and though it was expected to be completed in 2013 it is still being excavated.  Such delays seem to be par for the course in our state. In 2001, the Carrying Capacity study of Mussoorie was publicised. It had been conducted by a wing of the LBSNAA. Among its many conclusions it had found that by the year 2016, current water supply will be inadequate even during the winter months. To avoid this crisis, the Monitoring Committee had accepted our proposal that our drinking water supply should be augmented by pumping and filtering water from the Jumna. This was accepted. Today, water from the river has still not reached Mussoorie and no one can say why this has not happened.

Sadly, this seems to be typical of the culpable heel-dragging of our government, regardless of the party in power. There is no point in publicising how much aid you have given to the citizens of the Joshimath disaster. The tragedy was caused on your watch. If you had not been sleeping on the watch, then your offence is even greater. And you might yet be called to account.

So the bottom line is this: stop all major ecologically and geologically disturbing work immediately. Reassess their adverse impact. Start thinking like a Highlander, which is why Uttarakhand was created in the first place.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)