For nearly four decades, Ravi Chopra, research scientist, author, and former director of the People’s Science Institute in Dehradun, has led projects dealing with development, environment, and disaster mitigation in the Himalayan belt. He has served on several government committees, including chairing the Char Dham Pariyojana Committee and the one studying the impact of hydroelectric projects during the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy. In 2021, Chopra resigned from the Char Dham committee saying the government did not respect its recommendations.
Chopra has repeatedly raised red flags about the rampant development in this vulnerable region. Speaking to Frontline about Joshimath, he warned that other hill towns face the same fate and it is critical now for the government to act with vision.
What are your immediate observations as someone who has been tracking the subsidence issue in Joshimath?
I was struck by the level of anger visible on the streets, in the homes of people, and the protest demonstrations. Across town, posters were plastered on walls saying “NTPC go back”. People are upset that officers talk among themselves and not with them.
A part of the anger stems from the protest against the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project. For 20 years, locals have been protesting against this project, which they say is responsible for the disasters taking place.
In spite of warnings by scientists, environmentalists, and local people, the government has not acted to secure lives and livelihoods.
Scientists sounded alarm bells about the fragility of the Himalaya in the context of big power projects as far back as 1976. You were part of a committee that warned that glacial retreat, coupled with dams, could lead to large-scale disasters. Yet, none of it was acted upon...
It is very unfortunate that in spite of all the warnings absolutely nothing has been done. Joshimath was a small market town before 1962. After the border war with China, major road construction began in the area. There are two roads going to important border points—one is to Dhauliganga going up to Malari and the other is to the Alaknanda Valley going up to Mana. It was probably in the 1970s that cracks began to appear on these roads. That’s when the Mishra Committee was appointed.
It recommended surveys to determine insecure and stable areas. It observed that the base of the mountain has Dhauliganga on the northern side and Alaknanda on the western side. As both rivers have tremendous erosive power, the base of the mountain had to be protected. They said since 1962 there had been rapid deforestation and suggested a reforestation plan. None of this was implemented.
In 2003, the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Plant and other projects on the Dhauliganga were announced. That’s when the first protest started. Locals had seen the JP hydro project at Vishnuprayag on the Alaknanda. The blasting had led to cracks in people’s homes.
In 2006, a researcher at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology published a paper saying cracks on roads and homes have appeared in Ravigram. In 2009, there was large water discharge on the Joshimath slope. Two scientists from Garhwal University wrote in Current Science that this was because a tunnel-boring machine had punctured an aquifer.
In 2014, a Supreme Court-appointed expert body, which I headed, was asked to review the impact of dams on Uttarakhand’s environment; essentially to see if dams had aggravated the 2013 floods and to review 24 dams. We made a categorical recommendation that the areas north of the main central thrust, the most sensitive seismic fault zone in the Himalayan region—Joshimath is on the northern edge of it—should not have any dam. It was ignored.
In 2015, three consultants reportedly advising L&T published a paper with data from NTPC and L&T, concluding that in 2009 and later in 2012 there had been a lot of water ingress into the tunnel. The water pressure opened new cracks and widened existing ones. If a local ingress can do so much damage, you can imagine what happened in 2021 when the flood came.
In 2021, a flood destroyed the barrage of Tapovan Vishnugad and floodwaters entered the tunnel. About 30 eminent scientists wrote to the Prime Minister to review the policy of building dams. These were warnings in the public domain and the government did not do anything.
Why does it take a crisis to notice the problem? Is there a process where experts are involved in the planning and sanctioning stage of massive infrastructure projects?
If you are asking why environmentalists do not address the issue at the planning stage, most of the time we do not know what is being planned. Our country does not have a process for that. In this particular case the warning was already there: the Mishra Committee report. It says clearly, Joshimath is sitting on landslide debris. The soil does not have a load-bearing capacity. It was ignored.
The problem is all governments have one idea of development, which is focussed on industrialisation. This has a high power requirement and that is all that they worry about. I have gone through at least 8-10 Environment Impact Assessment reports carefully; much of the critical data is cooked up. Whatever regulatory systems exist are weakened by bureaucracy.
You have led a crusade for sustainable development in the Uttarakhand region. Could you speak about this?
Neither the Central nor State governments under any regime have tried to develop an understanding about sustainable development in the mountain regions of India. The only time thought was given to it was when Madhav Gadgil presented the report on the Western Ghats. It was rejected. It did not suit the government at that time.
Other than that, no serious thought is given to it. There is no policy or planning on how mountain cities should develop sustainably. Shimla, Mussoorie, Almora, Solan, Nainital, Gangtok, Shillong: they are all succumbing to unplanned growth. Not development, just growth.
People need livelihoods. What option do they have but to earn from tourism or infrastructure?
In Uttarakhand, agriculture has received very little investment. In contrast, Himachal Pradesh’s first Chief Minister Y.S. Parmar developed agriculture and introduced horticulture. He persuaded universities to research remunerative crops—therefore, the apple orchards. Uttarakhand has no such leadership. Villages did not receive much investment either under Uttar Pradesh or Uttarakhand. After Statehood, one major change took place: instead of migrating out of the State, people moved from villages to towns, increasing the burden on the mountains.
In Joshimath’s case, while it developed after 1962 when the Army set up a base, it mushroomed after Statehood, particularly with the Char Dham Pariyojana construction. The only way to describe it is: madness. The scale of tourists is unbelievable. I am not calling them pilgrims, but tourists. The Char Dham Pariyojana Committee that I headed pointed out that the shrines are located at the ends of river valleys. These are very narrow, and have a limited carrying capacity. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
A significant amount of development is on the river banks with blatant violations. How is there still such poor monitoring?
There was a court order in 2000 saying there could be no construction within 200 metres of the river. But we have narrow river valleys, and 200 metres was considered unreasonable. It came down to 100 metres. Even that was not respected. I have seen columns of buildings going through rocks on mountain streams. That is how blatant the violations are. There is a lot of money in real estate, as we all know.
Along with Joshimath, other towns seem to be facing the same fate. Do you see any difference in mood to resolve it now?
At the moment, the government of Uttarakhand seems extremely worried. Eight or 10 scientific institutions are expected to give reports in two weeks. They promise to come up with a comprehensive plan for the area. After this, if they don’t wake up, God help us. Karnaprayag or Chamba, where tunnels have been dug all along the railroad, are under threat. I read a news report on Rudraprayag, that it is emptying out. We are dealing with a rapidly developing crisis.
What is the way forward?
The first thing is to carry out surveys on unsafe areas. Obviously, people must be rehabilitated. It is important to determine the carrying capacity of Joshimath. And it is critical to plan for its sustainable development.
In 2014, we recommended that tourism in Uttarakhand should be spread out. Presently, only seven locations see a high influx of tourists: the Char Dham, Hemkund, Rajaji National Park, and Corbett National Park.
Finally, there is enough data to prove that it is not essential to build big dams above 2,200 metres. We can hope that sense will dawn on decision-makers.
- Joshimath was a small market town before 1962. After the border war with China, major road construction began in the area.
- Across Joshimath, posters were plastered on walls saying “NTPC go back”. People are upset that officers talk among themselves and not with them.
- In spite of warnings by scientists, environmentalists, and local people, the government has not acted to secure lives and livelihoods.
- In Uttarakhand, agriculture has received very little investment. In contrast, Himachal Pradesh’s first chief minister Y.S. Parmar developed agriculture and introduced horticulture.