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Lessons from Joshimath

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By BK Joshi

The purpose of this article is to raise some issues about the future course of development in the fragile Himalayan region based on what we can learn from the ongoing tragedy in Joshimath. Two things are quite clear. One, the problem in Joshimath did not arise overnight; it has been there for quite a while. It was first highlighted by the Committee headed by the then Commissioner of Garhwal, MC Mishra, which had been set up by the UP Government to suggest measures to deal with the problem of land subsidence in the town as far back as 1976! It highlighted the role of heavy construction projects undertaken after 1962, growing population and indiscriminate felling of trees in exacerbating the problem. Unfortunately, the Committee’s recommendations only gathered dust all these years. Two, Joshimath is not alone in facing this problem. A number of other towns and villages in Uttarakhand, including iconic hill stations of Nainital and Mussoorie, and towns such as Almora, Pauri are facing problems of land subsidence, vulnerability to landslides and excessive concrete construction that can sooner or later pose similar threats.

The issue ultimately boils down to identifying the appropriate strategy of development for the Himalayan region. It is well known that the Himalayas are an active mountain range with a long history of devastating earthquakes and other environmental disasters like the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013. Hence, it is imperative that a proper balance between environment and development is struck. In recent years, in our race to emerge as “the most developed state” in the country, we seem to have given a go-by to all environmental considerations while pursuing a slew of large-scale construction activities, be it the Char Dham all-weather road, Rishikesh to Karnaprayag rail line or a number of hydro-power projects even at high altitudes. It is questionable whether the fragile mountain range can bear the consequences of such heavy construction.

The way out in my view is to approach development in the Himalayas within the framework of carrying capacity of the affected areas. It is heartening to note, as reported in the newspapers, that the Uttarakhand government has decided to undertake carrying capacity studies of “all hill towns” announced by the Chief Minister a few days ago. Details on who will be undertaking these studies are awaited. Commenting on the decision, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer (The Carrying Capacity Dilemma, Garhwal Post, January 17, 2023) have cautioned: “Clearly this is a formidable task if detailed carrying capacity studies are to be undertaken. If, however, meticulous surveys are not intended, then the whole exercise becomes a hollow, publicity-seeking stunt not worth the money spent on it.”

Admittedly, carrying capacity is a difficult concept to operationalise, especially in its application to human systems like urban areas as intended by the Uttarakhand government. We have to bear in mind that in its application to social/ human systems like cities and towns, as against natural systems like national parks and sanctuaries where it has been most commonly applied, carrying capacity is mediated by technology which can overcome constraints imposed by natural factors. For instance, if the availability of water for drinking and other uses is limited so that it imposes a limit on the maximum number of people that can be sustained in an area, this constraint can be overcome by tapping underground water or transporting water from a distant source either by gravity channels or by pumping. It is for this reason that we find that the size and population of cities and towns have been constantly increasing and new technologies are being deployed to make this expansion possible while also easing some of the problems arising out of incessant urban expansion – for example easing mobility by provision of different modes of public transport. Having said that, we have to recognise that there is a major difference in the situation of towns and cities in the Himalayan region and in the plains. The Himalayas being an active mountain system susceptible to landslides, earthquakes and various environmental stresses need to be approached with great caution. When our so-called development activities ignore or go against environmental constraints we tend to court disaster leading to avoidable loss of life and property. Hence, the need to pay attention to carrying capacity, particularly in the case of Himalayan towns and cities.

Not much work has been done in understanding the applicability and operationalisation of the concept of carrying capacity to human and social systems. Two good efforts from the past come to mind. One was a carrying capacity study of the Doon Valley conducted by a number of institutions led by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and sponsored by the Ministry of Environment, Government of India in 1996 or thereabouts, and the other of the carrying capacity of Mussoorie undertaken by the LBS National Academy of Administration (also mentioned by the Gantzers in their Garhwal Post column). It would be worthwhile to go back to these studies and seriously study their methodology and findings.

A real dilemma will confront us when any of the proposed studies concludes that the carrying capacity of an urban centre has been exceeded, as indeed we suspect they well might in relation to some major mountain towns. The question then will be: how do we deal with the situation? Can any town be decongested and the population dispersed? Can we muster the political will to do so?  Admittedly these are difficult questions that will have to be faced at some stage as the Joshimath example demonstrates.

(BK Joshi is former Vice Chancellor, Kumaon University and currently Honorary Director, Doon Library & Research Centre).