A cautionary tale from Joshimath

Veroli Zhimo

The recent declaration of Joshimath hill town in Uttarakhand as a ‘landslide-subsidence zone’ must serve as an eye-opener for the State of Nagaland which lies in seismic zone V and hence, falls under a very high damage risk zone.

Over the last few days, several experts have pointed out that various anthropogenic and natural factors have led to land subsidence in Joshimath. While there is panic over cracks developing in homes, roads and fields in the town, scientists and geologists have reportedly been sounding the alarm for decades.

As reported by various news agencies, even in 1976, the government-appointed MC Mishra Committee recommended a ban on heavy construction in the area as Joshimath is located on the site of a landslide, and cannot support high rate of building activity. However, despite awareness of its vulnerable foundations, rampant and haphazard construction, including widening of the national highway had been allowed, thereby making the already fragile hill town highly unstable.

Notably, Nagaland which is considered by seismologists as the sixth major earthquake-prone belt in the world has also seen a surge of ‘developmental’ projects including statewide widening of state and national highways as well as tunneling for rail connectivity. The state is also known for the multiple landslides, floods, and other calamities that occur annually along the roadways. In the last decade, there has been a significant increase of such occurrences especially during the monsoon.

Similarly, even in the state capital Kohima where several incidents of landslides and sinking are reported every year, various multi-level buildings have been and are being constructed at a rapid pace by the government and citizens alike. This same pace of infrastructural development has been observed in other parts of the state as well, and most of these projects are taken up without any environmental impact assessments (EIA).

In this context, while it is acknowledged that the government has the responsibility to bring about equitable development; the development should be sustainable within the context of the region’s ecology, geography and cultural features.

Accordingly, the government machinery could begin by initiating a careful review of projects, monitoring them, and also introduce building bye-laws and other regulations to ensure that the slopes are not being destabilised by undue infrastructural load, etc.

Another approach would be to bring in the experts from the Department of Geology & Mining and other allied departments so that thoughtful and careful planning can be initiated so that long-term measures can be taken up.

Comments can be sent to vzhimolimi@gmail.com