Stop Messing With Nature

The situation in Joshimath, has once again raised the multi-billion dollar question of development versus ecology. For many who questioned the need of a developed all-weather road to Char Dham and the India-China border, the episode at Joshimath may offer an opportunity to further their argument. But that would be the wrong lesson to draw from the entire episode. Joshimath “lies on an ancient landslide, resting on a deposit of sand and stone, not rock”. The three main factors behind the current situation in Joshimath is: Joshimath’s vulnerable foundations, as it was developed on the rubble of an earthquake-triggered landslide more than a century ago; its location in seismic zone V, which is more prone to earthquakes; plus gradual weathering and water seepage that reduce the cohesive strength of rocks over time No person or institution is to be blamed for the Himalayas being a relatively young mountain chain and being more prone to earthquakes. The importance of economic development, infrastructure, tourism, trade, lower transportation costs, access to better healthcare and education, connectivity to cities, and all-weather accessibility cannot be undermined, come what may.  Even the locals around Joshimath cannot not be faulted for building houses or shops, for an increased footfall opens up economic opportunities which are further complemented by infrastructure. What accountability must be fixed for however, is for allowing the construction of buildings in those areas of Joshimath whose instability is well recorded, well known, and obvious. The lesson from Joshimath is to find the balance between economy and ecology by not ignoring obvious facts about the physical landscape of any region. Shimla, a city that began merely on one side of the mountain, but has now expanded to more than five sides, is a lesson in point. The Kalka-Shimla highway is one of the most difficult highways in this country, from a construction standpoint. Yet, its economic importance for the region cannot be understated, even with the threat of landslides during monsoons that leads to cracks and often renders half of the highway useless.  But the expanded hill capital poses a problem. Recently, a four-storey building collapsed in the city with no loss of life. In 2021, an eight-storey building collapsed as well. Shimla, falling in seismic zone five, has witnessed unchecked and uncontrolled construction of residential houses and hotels, all more than four storeys. Summer droughts, due to tourism pressure, are becoming common in the city. Yet, week after week, the city hosts thousands of tourists from across north India.  Shimla must be seen as a warning for the future governments, along with Joshimath, for development of the Himalayan states. While no region must suffer because of the tyranny of distance as the North East did before 2014, a line must be drawn, based on past lessons. The scenes surfacing today from Joshimath are a testament to the hammering Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have been under from unregulated construction activity. While it is imperative to develop regions as economic hotspots (horticulture, hotels, etc), the regulations deciding the expansion capacity must be strictly applied so that another Shimla or Joshimath does not happen. While it is not uncommon for cities with temples to turn into attraction spots, some state governments have been on an unchecked spree to rob the temples and even other places of historical significance of their sanctity. A case in point is the Attari Border, a few kilometers away from Amritsar. Under Punjab Tourism, a Shahi Qila with a family restaurant and kids zone has come up, less than hundred metres from the international border. Not only does this cringe addition demean the stature of the place, it robs it of its historical significance and sanctity.  Looking at the Attari Border in Amritsar, it was not difficult to side with the protesting Jains, fearing the same to happen at Sammed Shikharji. The Jharkhand government, in what looked like a clear case of misplaced priorities, was being unjust to the Jains. Eventually though, better sense prevailed and the spot has not been labelled as a tourism hub. It will be allowed to retain its holy sanctity. On the other end of the spectrum are the success stories—which enable access and connectivity to a religious place while ensuring its sanctity and piousness.  The Kashi Corridor, the Vande Bharat Express from Delhi to Katra, for devotees visiting Vaishno Devi, the Ram Mandir coming up in Ayodhya, and even the Golden Temple in Amritsar; all are examples of religious tourism being complemented by commerce. The importance of commerce for any religious circuit cannot be dismissed, but commerce cannot come at the cost of the sanctity of the temples in question. Even the Ministry of Tourism in the Narendra Modi government has recognised the potential in balancing religious tourism with commerce. In 2014-15, the Swadesh Darshan Scheme was announced, offering financial assistance to states for development of pilgrimage circuits. Fifteen circuits were identified, including a Himalayan circuit, a Buddhist circuit, and even a North-East circuit. The government, rightfully, wanted the religious tourism economy to boom while retaining the historical sanctity of all the spots.  For this complex equation, there is no one-variable-suits-all solution. The episode at Joshimath cannot result in the halting of development in other Himalayan regions, nor the political solution for Sammed Shikharji be used to stall the development of other religious circuits. Bottomline being: the highways are important and the commerce around religious places is indispensable. Going forward, the government will have to balance sanctity of the holy sites with the potential economy, and infrastructural development with the ecology. It’s an intricate balance, one that will warrant all sorts of improvisation at every step, but it needs to be achieved.  More planning. More accountability. More balance.— INAV


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Swarup Kalluri

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