The extent of the land subsidence in Joshimath is yet to be fully known. Knowledge about the load bearing capacity was available reportedly as far back as 1957, following a study undertaken by a committee set up for the purpose. However, it was not taken seriously enough for it to impact policy or land use regulations. Having transformed from a pilgrimage to a tourist destination over the years has led to the town becoming ‘overpopulated and over-constructed’. Hopefully, proper investigations will also reveal the trigger that set off the present calamity, believed to be the construction of a tunnel that is part of a major hydel project.
The long term impact of this disaster will be considerable for Uttarakhand, particularly in the social and economic realms. Not only will the affected population have to be rehabilitated, large scale policy changes will be needed for future development. While environmentalists are saying ‘We told you so’, it must not be forgotten that their formulations on environment friendly growth have been led mostly by the ‘eco-fundamentalists’ among them, rather than by those who also factor in the local requirements. This has led to even the sensible suggestions being largely ignored by the populace and, hence, the politicians.
The abandonment of land and property that represent cumulative investment by a large number of people from their lifelong earnings will create a big hole in the state’s economy. The government’s efforts, no matter how generous, cannot compensate even a fraction of this lost wealth. Many people will be rendered poor and the effort to rebuild their lives may prove too much for them. The lost investment in the ‘development’ schemes that may be truncated will also have to be borne by the state and its taxpayers.
Despite this setback, the event should be considered a warning signal that stimulates recalibration of the state’s development model for the hills. It should be ensured that the engineering solutions required to satisfy the needs of the hill folk and the defence of the borders are backed up by high science. It is not possible anymore to choose the cheaper, short-cut solutions based often on the inclinations of people in power. Maybe hi-tech solutions should be set aside for the time being because of the high costs involved and Uttarakhand should be marketed as an adventure state involving ‘difficulties of nature’ rather than a cool weekend destination accessible by expressways up to the last mile. Perhaps, as in the past, the people of the state will need to do without, because by wanting more, they did too much!