Joshimath: Indifference and Socio-Cultural Cost

It is a place with high cultural values, charming natural beauty and the ethos of diversity
A scientist from G.B Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Climate Change during a survey of the affected area in Sunil village after the recent land subsidence, in Joshimath on Saturday.
A scientist from G.B Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Climate Change during a survey of the affected area in Sunil village after the recent land subsidence, in Joshimath on Saturday.File: ANI

If one searches the internet for Joshimath, a lovely picture accompanied by this description would be one of the major attractions: “the gateway for mountain climbing expeditions, trekking, and several other thrilling activities for those who want to live life on the edge. It is from here one has to traverse to the famous trekking destination in Uttarakhand, Valley of Flowers.” It is a place with high cultural values, charming natural beauty and exemplifying the ethos of diversity.

But today Joshimath is in the news, very intense news, for altogether different reasons. There is the land subsidence happening with rising risks each hour – risks to lives, livelihood and an almost disappearance of a place with a history of culture, stories of the divine blessing lives on earth, examples of people leading an aura of happiness with minimal governance interventions and a socio-cultural atmosphere marked by cohesion.

While we have almost already lost the opportunity to save this place from land subsidence, we cannot afford to let it happen just like that without absorbing lessons from the happenings and with all the natural, social, cultural and economic costs.

Today the sure happenings getting unfolded reminds the experience of Jules Verne reacting to a book his uncle was reading and elaborated in his book A Journey into the Interior of the Earth: “Four different languages in this ridiculous sentence! What connection could there possibly be between such words as ice, sir, anger, cruel, sacred wood, changeable, mother, bow, and sea? The first and the last might have something to do with each other; it was not at all surprising that in a document written in Iceland there should be mention of a sea of ice; but it was quite another thing to get to the end of this cryptogram with so small a clue.

So I was struggling with an insurmountable difficulty; my brain got heated, my eyes watered over that sheet of paper; its hundred and thirty-two letters seemed to flutter and fly around me like those motes of mingled light and darkness which float in the air around the head when the blood is rushing upwards with undue violence.

I was a prey to a kind of hallucination; I was stifling; I wanted air. Unconsciously I fanned myself with the bit of paper, the back and front of which successively came before my eyes. What was my surprise when, in one of those rapid revolutions, at the moment when the back was turned to me I thought I caught sight of the Latin words “craterem,” “terrestre,” and others.”

​The almost uninterrupted allowance of the happenings to take place in Joshimath is happening almost fifty years after the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 on The UN Declaration on Human Development and the enunciation of 21 Normative Principles in it. There are so many questions to be examined and given answers relating to what is happening in connection with Joshimath.

​We understand that disasters do happen every now and then on our planet. Before we jump to a conclusion, let us be very clear on the components for an event to be declared as a disaster. First, there is the scale component; there should be a large-scale destruction of lives and property.

Second, there is the component of time; the happening should be such that there is an element of uncertainty and surprise. A disaster happens all of a sudden and on a massive scale. Third, there is the reduction of scope for response to the damages.

The damages caused spread across every dimension of human existence – houses, infrastructure of all kinds and the uncertainty as to whether the risk associated with the disaster is continuing or has come to an end.

Now looking from these three components of a disaster, the scenario getting unfolded in Joshimath cannot by any means be termed as disaster in the usual sense.

There is a large involvement of lives and property, but the nature of damage is such as cannot be termed as disaster. Further, the element of uncertainty is not there in this case; it is not a case of suddenness here.

Still further, the question of restoring the damaged area to a situation of inhabitable sustainability does not arise in this case. Thus though the scale is huge enough to be termed as disaster, the nature of it is very different from the usual understanding of it.

​Now what is it? The disaster happening and going to happen is a social one. The uniqueness of social disaster unfolding in Joshimath is not the usual case of poverty and hunger. It is a social disaster where the entire social fabric, with all its components, would be completely dislocated. Even more serious is the fact that this social fabric would never be restructured.

As emphasised, the unfolding scenario has been known for quite some time. There is this absence of the element of uncertainty and yet the event is going to happen. This naturally makes us to raise certain governance and policy questions.

​First, since the phenomenon of land subsidence has been brought to light, what has been the response of governance to this realisation? The place and the society with all the enriching cultural values have been in existence for centuries. Now that this phenomenon of land subsidence has come to light, has the government initiated geo-scientific studies as to the scale, process and scope for halting or otherwise? We know for sure that this has not been the case; the phenomenon has been identified, but the dynamics have not been fully digested.

Second, in the absence of physical intervention founded on geo-sciences, the social disaster was inevitable. Has the government initiated steps to avoid large-scale and sudden social disaster by initiating steps to relocate and replicate the societal fabric in a new location. This is important not only for the present but for the future generations too. This is important for the nation as a whole as well.

​Third, the nature of the occurrence is such that the interventions are necessarily to be thought over and initiated by the government.

​In fine, the governance has been marked by both direct and indirect moral ambiguity in so far as Joshimath is concerned. Now the people are paying a price of social disaster – a pure case of the costs of governance indifference being borne by the public.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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