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Why Is The Land Sinking In Joshimath?

  • Joshimath’s geological setting, together with the unplanned and rampant construction in and around the town, has resulted in land subsidence.
  • The town is built on the deposits of an old landslide, which means that the slopes can be destabilized even by slight triggers.
  • Joshimath is also in Zone V, which, as per India’s seismic zonation scheme, denotes the highest risk.
  • Geologist Navin Juyal states that the area around Joshimath is highly active in terms of slope mobility due to the Main Central Thrust (MCT).
  • Joshimath is also prone to extreme weather, and heavy rainfall can trigger landslides since the slopes are precariously balanced.
  • A report by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) in September 2022 stated that the floods of June 2013 and February 2021 heightened erosion in the area and heavy rains in October 2021 further angered subsidence and vulnerability to landslides.
  • Despite warnings decades ago, Joshimath continued to develop in an unscientific manner.

Where Is The Town of Joshimath Situated?

  • Joshimath is a town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India.
  • It is situated at a height of 6,107 feet and has a population of about 23,000.
  • It is an important place of strategic importance as it leads to villages along the India-China border and also en route to Barahoti, a disputed territory along the border.
  • Joshimath is also a gateway to noted sites of pilgrimage such as Badrinath for Hindus and Hemkund Sahib for Sikhs, the international skiing site of Auli and the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Despite being a tourist destination, the town has been heavily built-on with hotels, resorts, and a bustling market that caters mainly to tourists, pilgrims, trekkers and personnel of the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

How Vulnerable Is Joshimath?

  • The town is built on the deposits of an old landslide, which means that the slopes can be destabilized even by slight triggers.
  • Joshimath is also in Zone V, which, as per India’s seismic zonation scheme, denotes the highest risk.
  • Geologist Navin Juyal states that the area around Joshimath is highly active in terms of slope mobility due to the Main Central Thrust (MCT).
  • Joshimath is also prone to extreme weather, and heavy rainfall can trigger landslides since the slopes are precariously balanced.
  • A report by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) in September 2022 stated that the floods of June 2013 and February 2021 heightened erosion in the area and heavy rains in October 2021 further angered subsidence and vulnerability to landslides.

What Is The Role Of The NTPC?

  • Locals have blamed the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) 520-MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project, under construction in the area, for exacerbating Joshimath’s land subsidence.
  • On December 24, 2009, a tunnel boring machine punctured an aquifer some three km from Selang village, which is only about five km from Joshimath.
  • The puncture released water at 700-800 litres per second, enough to meet the needs of at least two million people every day.
  • Some researchers affiliated with the Dehradun-based Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre and the Srinagar Garhwal-based Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna (HNB) Garhwal University have stated that the water release could be a major contributor to the subsidence.
  • However, there have been no scientific studies establishing links between the puncture and the subsidence in Joshimath. Therefore, the NTPC in a January 5 press release denied any role in the ongoing crisis.

What About The Char Dham project?

  • The six-km Helang-Marwari bypass, being built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), is also under scrutiny for weakening slopes and further destabilizing the local topography.
  • The bypass is part of the 825-km Char Dham highway expansion project in Uttarakhand, which experts have already questioned for unscientific slope-cutting, which resulted in several landslides.
  • Geologist Navin Juyal, who recommended that the bypass be built only after a geotechnical feasibility study, states that the project was built despite warnings from a few committee members.
  • Residents stated that the BRO was using drills and explosives to construct the bypass, which is weakening the foundations on which Joshimath stands and could be detrimental to the town’s existence.

What Are The Other Issues Which Have Contributed To Land Subsidence?

  • The 2022 USDMA report pointed to a lack of drainage and wastewater disposal systems as being part of the subsidence problem.
  • According to Mr. Sati, about 85% of buildings in the town, including those owned by the Army, aren’t connected to a sewerage system and have soak pits instead.
  • The 1976 Mishra committee report had warned that these pits could create “cavities between soil and boulders”, as well as that inadequate drainage could lead to landslides.
  • Garhwal University’s Mr. Sundriyal has said that such cavities result in land subsidence as well.

February 2023
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