The Himalaya is a fragile mountain range that is still rising as the Indian plate continues to push into the Asian plate. The mountains are mainly the shale upwelling of the sea, which makes them quite unstable. In fact, they are largely held together by the forests that they support.
There is a considerable amount of research on the vulnerabilities of Himalayan geology, brought to the fore recently with the sinking of Joshimath town. At over 6,000 feet, Joshimath sits on the side of an unstable ridge created largely from glacial moraine rock and shale in a rift valley. The main road here winds down to Govindghat and then rises to Hanuman Chatti and Badrinath, at 10,000 feet.
The ground beneath is a heterogeneous mass with many pockets of variegated rock and more open spaces occupied by water and mud from old glacial deposits, and, it seems, some important aquifers as well. And it is a seismic zone.
This is no place for a tourist town that supports more than 2 million pilgrims a year or a four-lane highway. The government has also sanctioned a bypass and a hydropower project in the Dhauliganga-Alaknanda basin. The latter required considerable tunnelling; one such exercise has been in the spotlight for puncturing an aquifer in 2009 and contributing to the Joshimath slide.
At the time of independence, 75 years ago, the Uttarakhand region had only three metalled mountain roads: one from Haldwani to Nainital, one from Dehradun to Mussoorie, and one from Haldwani to Ranikhet – all together a little over a 100 km. Today, according to Indu Pande, a former Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand, the state has more than 40,000 km of roads and counting.
With the consequent loss of forest cover and extreme weather events (like the 2013 Kedarnath flood), catastrophes have occurred at a steady beat in all of Uttarakhand. The local soil and water have also been degraded. One indication of this is the declining number of natural mineral water springs.
The British fashioned the first roads with great care from the weak and infirm shale hills and paid close attention to drainage. Even so, they found that the hillside needed three decades or so to stabilise with enough trees and other vegetation. A new road on the same hillside had to wait that long. Today the situation is quite different.
One catastrophe of note is landslides, whose number has shot up. Every time there is a heavy downpour, more than a hundred shale landslides break out in Uttarakhand alone.
India also appears to be competing with China to build high-altitude railways. But the mountains in Tibet on the Chinese side are made of firm rock whereas most of the Himalayan mountains are made of the more unstable shale. Both the Himalaya and Uttarakhand in particular also straddle an earthquake-prone zone. So these construction activities must cease.
It is also notable that there were no motorable roads to the Char Dham sites (Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath) earlier; they all concluded in Rishikesh. The Char Dham yatra was principally a walking pilgrimage whose undertaking involved the body, the mind and the spirit. Today, visitors travel on roads and even on four-lane highways. Both they and the sites are losing their communion with nature.
If India needs any strategic border roads, they must run along rocky terrain to be stable. Those roads that exist on shale or other loose-soil hills must be urgently forested – to stabilise the steep hillside as well as hold water and restore springs. There must be no further invasive construction activity.
There must also be a complete ban on any hydroelectric power projects in the Himalaya, especially on the source-rivers of the Ganga (Bhagirathi and Alaknanda). This is one of the causes on which the scholar and activist Prof. G.D. Agarwal spent many years, eventually in vain.
The very young and frail Himalaya can’t afford more such escapades. Joshimath is a warning, a forerunner of what is to come.
One of Lula da Silva’s first actions after being elected President of Brazil was to declare the Amazon basin a strictly protected zone. He has also asked all nations to contribute to this effort. The Amazon is not just a Brazilian entity: the climate of the whole world depends on its health.
Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will show genuine leadership if he declares the Indian Himalaya to be an inviolate protected zone and a ‘planet reserve’ – during India’s G20 presidency and at the United Nations – and ask all nations to contribute to such a timely cause.
Vikram Soni is emeritus professor at Jamia Millia and Jawaharlal Nehru University.