mody27_BRIJESH SATIAFP via Getty Images_joshimath BRIJESH SATI/AFP via Getty Images

India’s Broken State

Himalayan towns are crumbling and sinking as a result of runaway development, and nobody should be surprised. For years, India’s governing elites have catered primarily to the needs of the most privileged, while concealing disasters that befall the most vulnerable in an informational fog.

PRINCETON – The town of Joshimath may be nestled 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level in the Himalayas, but it is sinking fast. In early January, large cracks split homes, hotels, and roads, leaving the town’s future hanging in the balance. Joshimath is a grim metaphor for India’s woefully unaccountable state.

Joshimath is located in a seismically active zone of landslide debris and sediment layered over a weak assemblage of rocks. Such terrain naturally sinks and slides, but the problem is made worse by deforestation. Moreover, because the Alaknanda River (a tributary of the Ganges) has eroded the northwestern toe of the slope on which Joshimath stands, the formation does not have a high load-bearing capacity, as has been known since the 1930s.

Cracks appeared in Joshimath’s roads in the 1970s. In 1976, a committee appointed by the government of Uttar Pradesh (of which Joshimath was then a part) reiterated the risk of subsidence (sinking) and advised that construction be undertaken only in areas determined to be stable. This official warning went unheeded, and local activists fought unsuccessfully to forestall unsafe construction.

The problem grew worse following the economic liberalization of the early 1990s, when the state endorsed and supported a form of unregulated capitalism, which often centered around lucrative construction contracts and featured a total disregard – even contempt – for the environment. Joshimath’s current troubles began innocuously in 1993, when Auli, a neighboring town, began construction of a ski-resort ropeway. That was the opening salvo in a much broader construction program.

State authorities soon launched ambitious plans for hydroelectric dams to harness the energy from Himalayan runoff. The 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag plant became operational in 2006, and construction of the more controversial 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad dam began the same year. To generate electricity from the project, a tunnel had to be built under the Joshimath hillslope, directly below the Auli ski resort. In 2009, a tunnel-boring machine punctured an aquifer in the mountain, depleting the groundwater on which Joshimath and other nearby towns depended. Sediment then filled the gaps left by the receding water, which some experts and activists believe added to the area’s subsidence tendency.

In June 2013, a disastrous flood killed more than 4,000 people in the area, leading to legal proceedings in which the Supreme Court expressed grave concerns over the “mushrooming” of dams in the region. The court was aghast that the authorities had not scientifically assessed “the cumulative impact” of the dams and the associated blasting, tunneling, muck disposal, mining, and deforestation. Under a court order, the government appointed an expert committee headed by the noted environmental scientist and activist Ravi Chopra.

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The Chopra Committee concluded that the Himalayan mountains, rivers, and communities were in “a crisis” exacerbated by global warming. The government’s “rampant development” approach, the committee said, would cause more deforestation and biodiversity loss alongside “unpredictable glacial and paraglacial activities.” Warning that this explosive combination would invite even greater disasters in the future, the committee proposed halting work on 23 dams.

When a second committee endorsed the Chopra Committee’s judgment, the government appointed a third committee that gave the go-ahead for more dams, and in July 2020, the authorities invited bids for the Helang-Marwari bypass road through a fragile landslide zone near the foot of the Joshimath hill. Construction of the bypass began two years later as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ecologically damaging program to ease travel to the holy shrines in the Himalayas.

Disasters continued to take lives. In February 2021, another flood killed a few hundred people, mainly around Tapovan-Vishnugad and another dam site. The dams themselves were almost irreparably damaged, and activists called on the Uttarakhand High Court to halt dam construction. The court threw out the case, reprimanding the petitioners and fining them for wasting its time.

After unusually heavy rains in October 2021, the cracks in Joshimath reached a tipping point. By January 2023, the threat of collapsing structures had made large parts of the town uninhabitable. Hundreds of residents have been herded into shelters, and the government has halted the rehabilitation of the Tapovan-Vishnugad dam and construction of the Helang-Marwari bypass.

Yet with calamity looming, credible information has become hard to come by. National authorities recently ordered the Indian Space Research Organization to unpublish satellite images that reveal the pace at which Joshimath is sinking, and officials are now prohibited from speaking to the media about the matter.

Joshimath is hardly alone. Many other towns and roads throughout the Himalayan range are showing similar signs of stress. This should surprise no one. It is yet another symptom of Indian authorities’ criminal lack of accountability. More tipping points loom as forests are being cleared; lakes, wetlands, and natural water reservoirs are being built over; urban areas are contending with mountains of garbage; and rivers have been almost irreversibly polluted. Education, health care, the judicial system, and city services work mainly for the privileged.

The practice of embellishing data, integral to the lack of accountability, extends to macroeconomic management. GDP growth jumped inexplicably after a data revision in 2015. In 2018, the government rejected its own survey when it showed that poverty had increased. The finance ministry reports absurdly unrealistic unemployment figures, despite a jobs crisis. The decadal census that was due in 2021 has been postponed until some unknown future date.

India’s elite, with its “see-no-evil” approach to economic discourse and policy, has blotted out Joshimath’s fate as an aberration of nature. Instead, world-class electronic-payment systems and technology-based startups have fed a global narrative of an imminent “Indian century.” Make no mistake though: Joshimath is a microcosm of the brazen unaccountability corroding Indian politics and society. It should be a reality check, not a footnote.