Joshimath: Warning call of the fragile Himalaya

Dr. Anil P Joshi

Himalaya is also said to be the third pole of the world as it carries the huge glaciers and several water bodies. This mountain system has been serving water, soil, air, and forest needs of eighteen nations of the world. About 2 billion people have been directly and indirectly benefited with the resources of the Himalayas.

Among the top ten mountain peaks of the world, Himalaya’s Everest is at the top.

The whole Himalayan settlement is on the debris and in course of the time the debris becomes rocky at the bottom and that offered settlement to the humans in the past. Joshimath, a small town in Uttarakhand state in India is also a part of the Himalaya.

It is a common engineering fact well recognized even in the ancient wisdom that any planning on the mountain needs to assess its bearing capacity first. There are three principles which ancient people have used since time immemorial. First, the water availability that decided the location of the settlement. Second was the slope for exposure to the sun and rain, and the third was the hardiness of debris. These nature laws also accounted for the size of the settlement too. 

A hundred years ago, Joshimath was a very small village which got bigger in due course of time and crossed the load limit of the hillock. The reasons behind the current situation are yet to be investigated thoroughly which are exacerbating the fragility of the Himalaya.

Fact is that the settlement of Joshimath stands on the debris that is unstable. The top layer soil in the Himalayan region is delicate and is liable to slips and slides. Moreover, any hillock that has a river at the bottom with or without settlement is always prone to toe erosion. Ever increasing population, infrastructure and material load eventually add more weight to the particular landscape which is causing mountain slides, cracks, etc.

However, one phrase is being repeated about the Joshimath that it is sinking, but it is not the truth. The situation cannot be defined as sinking and it doesn’t mean that Joshimath will dip into the valley. In fact, it is the top cover of the Joshimath hill that is sliding and it is the landslide, a bigger landslide. Second important factor is that the Joshimath settlement has grown on the top of the hill without necessary support of drainage, sewage and planned water drainage facilities. 

Knowing ecological limitations of the spot, the local municipality could have banned big multi-story buildings at the very beginning. Further development activities in the area like hydroelectric stations, border roads have added infrastructure and altered the local ecology to their benefit without keeping in mind the fact that Himalaya is one entity as a whole and can not be dealt in parts. Increased ecological vulnerability has resulted into the current situation Joshimath is facing and many other settlements in the Himalayas are fearing.

Around 35 percent of the Joshimath town is presently suffering while other parts are also susceptible to similar fate in future. 863 houses have developed cracks, and out of them 181 are rendered totally unsafe. There are also breaches on the road. Around 250 families have been moved out to safer places. State and centre governments are scrambling to address the issue. Gandhinagar, Singhdhar, Manohar Bag and Sunil are the most affected municipal wards in the current crisis.

Rs1.7 crore has been issued as interim relief for the 125 affected families but 25 percent of the affected families are demanding lump sum amount as compensation so that they can settle out of the town on their own.

Time to improve understanding of the Himalaya 

Ancient wisdom is that mountains do not allow bigger size of trees on the top and even humans are shorter in height there. It is the principle of nature. In that case, huge structures against the law of nature should not be permitted without weighting pros and cons in advance.

Since Himalayas are young mountains and still in the building phase, the various development strategies must recognize the Himalayan limitations. Development can not be denied to the people residing in the area which their counterparts are enjoying in other areas. But the fact is that this region is also a source of water, air, and soil and has values in the national context also.

In 2000, Uttarakhand was granted statehood on two major logics. Firstly, it was a recognition of the need for the development of the deprived communities living in the hills, and secondly, the use of the local resources and skill for the ecosystem growth by the community for their welfare.

Prosperity can not be denied to the hill people. But a long term outlook of ecological sustainability of the region is also an important factor to be considered when deciding the policies for the people.

A ‘Himalayan’ Policy Need  

Currently, there is no integrated “Himalayan policy” for development. There has never been serious dialogues and debates on how mountain systems should be accessed for development. It is not development that matters here but the process of development that counts. To be effective and sustainable, it has to be different from the other geological regions, and as per the local needs.

The tragedy of Joshimath opens up a window for future thoughts not only for Himalayan system but for all the mountain systems of the world.

For example, we cannot deny roads reaching up on the mountain to the common people. Infrastructure  helps better socio-economic connectivity for the community. The only issue that has to be factored in, is the pace of the road construction. Ideally, three to four kilometers in a month road construction should be allowed in this area, and ecological stability of the slopes and hills simultaneously should be part of the road making. Similarly all development projects must now onwards be put to fresh review on the ecological parameters.


We cannot say that the Himalaya is the only fragile mountain ecosystem in the world. For instance,  Switzerland, and China are also mountainous but their process of development is very considerate. They have been constructing rail lines, and roads up on the top of mountains but with better understanding of nature.

There has to be ecological riders in all development activities after the Joshimath experience. Developmental policies in mountains are required to dovetail science, sociology, ecology with economy.

Thus, Joshimath is just a warning, and it’s about the whole of Himalaya.

Dr. Anil Prakash Joshi is an environmentalist, green activist, and the founder of Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO). A recipient of Padma Shri in 2006 and Padma Bhushan in 2020 for environmental conservation, Joshi has coined the term, “GEP: Gross Environmental Product”.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times  

Images courtesy of (Image: Char Dham Yatra), (Image: ISRO) and Provided

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