Sinking town in India shows perils of rapid development

Political will and execution of green plans are vital as time is running out. As a civilisation, we have always worshipped rivers and forests. Perhaps it's time to return to our roots

By Simran Sodhi

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Published: Wed 25 Jan 2023, 8:55 PM

Last updated: Wed 25 Jan 2023, 10:21 PM

It is often an onerous task to strike a balance between nature and development. Protecting the earth and its resources while making life easy for humans can be challenging as the situation in the sinking Indian town of Joshimath has shown. Cracks have appeared in houses in the town as unplanned development takes a toll on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. People have been asked to leave the town and their homes as the ground sinks beneath their feet.

Most experts agree that the building of a hydro-electric project in the area, a rapid increase in population, and the tourist rush have all contributed to this tragedy for both humans and nature. The town is a gateway to pilgrimage sites like the Badrinath Temple and Hemkund Sahib.

The warnings have been there for quite some time now and the crisis was building up for decades. Incidents of land subsidence were first reported in the 1970s in Joshimath and a report in 1978 came out stating that major construction works should not be carried out in the area. But, of course, these warnings were conveniently ignored. Fast forward to 2023 and we are witness to a disaster unfolding before our eyes.

The idea of ‘sustainable development’ is not new. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as a ‘broad term to describe policies, projects, and investments that provide benefits today without sacrificing environmental, social and personal health in the future.’ The question is: What stops us then from taking climate change concerns and damage to the environment seriously as we plan cities and other modern infrastructure? The answers seem to be a combination of a lack of political will and poor implementation of policies. While the planning part on paper seems to have gone ahead, what has been lacking is ground-level adaptations to these recommendations.

The Chipko movement in India in the 1970s saw the local population, especially women, hugging trees to prevent the State from cutting them down. The idea behind the movement, even then, was to prevent damage to the ecosystem from rampant logging. It was also a great example of a community-led protest movement that eventually led to greater protection of the forests in the region. The lesson here is that an active and alert community of locals needs to play a much bigger role in this debate.

In India, people are leaving villages to go to cities in search of jobs. This rapid urbanisation is also causing water scarcity in India. Increasingly, Indians are paying a price for this in terms of their health and economy. In 2021, India was among the world’s most polluted countries, second only to Bangladesh. Further, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the surface water in India is unfit for consumption. Extended heat waves and flash floods in various parts of the country are adding to the crisis and it isn’t hard to see that we are already paying the price for reckless development.

The government is taking steps to correct many of these issues and a ministry has been set up to deal with depleting water reserves. But much more needs to be done and fast. Political will and execution of green plans are vital as time is running out. As a civilization, we have always worshiped rivers and forests. Perhaps it's time to return to our roots. The cracks in hundreds of houses in Joshimath remind us that we need to make peace with nature or face the consequences of our actions.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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