Rapid land subsidence causing buildings to crack has left several thousand residents of Joshimath in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand deeply worried. Some residents have fled for safety, and some have staged demonstrations.
The local administration has recorded cracks in over 800 houses and marked nearly 200 as unsafe. Heavily damaged structures are being pulled down, and the government is faced with the challenging task of quickly drawing up a relocation and rehabilitation plan for a significant chunk of the town’s population.
Located at an altitude of 1,875 meters in the Himalayas, the Hindu pilgrimage town of Joshimath is in the vicinity of the under-construction 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugarh hydroelectric project.
Consequently, Joshimath’s sinking was quickly linked with the hydropower development, especially by a section of scientists and environmentalists, who have been opposing India’s dam-building spree in the Himalayas. While the project executing agency, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), denied any link between its tunneling work and land subsidence at Joshimath, posters have appeared in different parts of the town, asking NTPC to “go back.”
The sentiment against hydropower, however, has spread to other distant corners of the Himalayas, where such projects are in the pipeline.
“The sinking of Joshimath has reaffirmed our understanding that there should be no more new dams in the Himalayas,” said Kaku Ram, the deputy chief of Shamathla panchayat (village self-government) in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh, a Himalayan state neighboring Uttarakhand.
“We cannot stop the under-construction Stage-I of the Luhri Dam because work has significantly progressed, but our experience with it tells us that we should in no way allow Stage-II of the Luhri Dam project to go ahead,” Ram, who is also the convenor of the local unit of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, a committee for farmers’ struggle, told The Diplomat.
Demanding that all safety concerns be addressed in full and compensation paid for the damage the dam is causing to neighboring villages, Ram said that there would be protests against the under-construction dam too.
The Indian government has rejected any link between land subsidence at Joshimath and the development of hydropower projects in the neighboring areas. Interestingly, the National Disaster Management Authority has ordered all government institutions and scientists to refrain from sharing information or views in the public domain.
However, a number of scientists known for their extensive work in this region have publicly aired their views that developments in Joshimath should be seen as a warning against going ahead with the planned hydropower push in the Himalayan region. Scientists like Anjal Prakash, Y P Sundriyal, and S. P. Sati, who participated in discussions on social media platforms, like the one on Twitter Spaces conducted by Climate Trends and the another on Facebook by Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, stressed that the geological and ecological fragility of the region makes it unfit for large dams.
Residents of areas earmarked for future projects appear to be believing the voices of warning from scientists rather than the government’s words of assurance. On January 22, more than 50 elected public representatives of local self-administration submitted a deputation to a minister, demanding a ban on new dam projects in Kinnaur, the district which has been Himachal’s hydropower hub.
In a telephone conversation with this writer, Jeeta Singh, convener of Ropa Valley Sangharsh Samiti, said that events at Joshimath have strengthened the local people’s resolve to oppose mega hydel projects. “People of Kinnaur will neither let the 804 MW Jangi Thopan Powari dam nor the three dams in Ropa valley (total 217 MW) be constructed,” he said. “Joshimath is an eye-opener for those who still had doubts.”
In Uttarakhand, the under-construction 1,000 MW Tehri Pumped Storage Project is likely to face renewed protests against allegedly unregulated muck dumping by the developing agency and cracks in houses from the impacts of blasts, local residents hinted. “We will not allow any new dam to come up in Chamoli district. People are getting united,” said a local public representative, who did not want to be identified. Chamoli witnessed a massive disaster in 2021 when hydel projects also suffered damages. In fact, it was found that the hydel projects actually intensified the magnitude of the devastation from the flash flood.
Such public sentiment against large dams is likely to impede India’s hydropower push, aimed at meeting its climate change mitigation commitments, as the plan is heavily dependent on the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, and the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
According to various reports published by India’s Central Electricity Authority, 45 percent of the country’s current hydropower installed capacity of 46,850.15 MW comes from the Himalayan region. The share is 80.36 percent of 12,663.5 MW capacity for the projects under construction. For projects in the pipeline – those approved or under survey/investigation – 65.85 percent of 55,693MW are to come from the Himalayan region.
Sections of the local population in Himalayan villages have long protested the adverse impacts of large hydropower projects. There are over two dozen villages in the Himalayan states where cracks in buildings or landslides in the vicinity of existing and under-construction projects have been reported in the past few years. Small-scale protests involving incidents of cracks in houses and land subsidence around sites of heavy blasting, reduction of river depth due to illegal muck dumping in the river, drying of streams, and damage to crops due to dust have been frequent, even if they rarely make the news.
The government and power development agencies have usually blamed the slide-prone nature of the region’s geology.
According to Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an activism and advocacy group, the greater magnitude of the Joshimath disaster and the importance of the town made it big news.
“The government never heeded the words of caution of scientists, environmentalists and local people,” Thakkar told The Diplomat.
However, the unfolding tragedy at Joshimath “has taken the debate to a new stage and I think it will now be difficult for the government to go ahead with the projects in the pipeline. People would oppose and resist them,” he said.