From the appearance of stray ground fissures and ensuing cracks in some houses that could well be brushed aside as being construction defects, Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is presently faced with a serious situation wherein a portion of the town is witnessing active ground subsidence that is reflected in distress of the overlying structures.
Despite the cause of suddenly aggravated situation in Joshimath not yet established, reports of ground fissures, related subsidence and cracks in the houses and other structures have started to pour in from various places across the state; Karnaprayag, Mussoorie, Nainital and others.
Quick and smart at correlating independent and unrelated events, and drawing speculative conjectures media instantaneously attributed pouring out water from the hill slope around Marwari in Joshimath to seepage from the tunnel, as also to Dhauliganga tragedy of 2021 in which the tunnels of NTPC’s hydropower project were chocked with the debris brought down by the floodwaters.
Not defying or denying the distress at other places, it however needs to be analysed if these reports have not sprung up at this very time due to the media-induced fear psychosis on the aftermath of the land subsidence around Joshimath?
More than anything else, it needs to be understood that Joshimath, as reiterated by different experts, is located over an old landslide zone. Though stabilised such an unconsolidated material is however not destined to remain stable at the face of fast increasing anthropogenic activities and safely carry the load of all these structures that have been erected out here, often defying permissible building codes and safety norms.
Moreover, Joshimath is not the only place disposed with such vulnerable conditions.
Availability of arable land being a precondition for human settlements, it is no surprise that most habitations in the hills are in the proximity of old landslide zones, as landslide promotes biological and chemical processes required for soil formation. With the passage of time many of these having favourable disposition witnessed concentration of population and developed into towns and cities.
Disposed with subsurface conditions not very different from Joshimath all these towns and cities could exhibit signs of distress with increasing pace of human interventions. It can thus be concluded that the fissures and cracks being reported now from many places across the state are not a new phenomenon. Fear psychosis and media attention have however brought these to the fore at this juncture.
Having said so, there is no denial that many towns and cities in the Himalayas, not confined to geographical limits of Uttarakhand, are faced with distress due to fast increasing anthropogenic pressure, and require implementation of a well planned mitigation strategy on war footing.
Carrying capacity: To begin with it needs to be realised that the towns and cities of the region have far exceeded their bearing capacity and the same is getting reflected in the distress being reported from far and wide. It is with this realisation and with an intent of setting the house in order that detailed assessment of the carrying capacity of the towns and cities of the region has to be carried out. All developmental planning has to be then based on this assessment.
Geological condition: Geological and geotechnical properties have a major bearing not only in deciding the stability of the hill slopes, but also bearing capacity of the ground. Detailed investigations are therefore required to understand geological and geotechnical properties of the rocks and subsurface strata, particularly around major towns and cities. Recommendations of the experts based on these investigations have to be subsequently made an essential ingredient of the developmental planning process.
Decongestion: Rather than overburdening existing towns and cities any further, the state needs to create satellite townships with state of art infrastructure and facilities together with connectivity, so that masses are incentivised to settle at these places. This would in turn redistribute the risk and significantly reduce pressure upon existing towns and cities.
Site specific building bye laws: Rather than global building bye laws covering the entire hilly terrain it is required that based on geological and geotechnical assessments and carrying capacity local bye laws be put in place. Special care would however be required to incorporate provisions that promote light weight structures with low carbon footprint.
Landuse restrictions: It is urgently required that based upon multi-hazard risk assessment of the region that Uttarakhand has already undertaken landuse regulations be put in place to disallow human intervention of any kind in the areas falling in high risk zones.
Stringent compliance: Compliance of prescribed bye laws and regulations really holds the key to success and for this stringent enforcement and punitive regime has to be supplemented by an aggressive risk communication and awareness drive that promotes wilful and voluntary compliance of the prescribed regulations.
Compounding: The regulatory bodies generally settle non-compliant construction by a monetary fine and hence legalise non-compliant construction through payment of fine which amounts to compromising with safety and incentivising people to flout the regulations.
No compromise should therefore be accepted with safety. It is therefore required urgently that the practice of compounding be scrapped, and all illegal or irregular constructions be necessarily demolished.
Strengthening of regulatory bodies: The entire exercise is to be futile unless local regulatory bodies are strengthened and capacitated, particularly in terms of trained and qualified human resource and that too in adequate numbers.
The glitter of structural interventions often tends to put human resource requirements at the back seat, but no system is to yield results unless it is backed by efficient and able manpower.
Risk transfer: Having suffered major losses due to recent incidence people would have certainly realised that they reside in a vulnerable place, and state cannot compensate all their losses. It is therefor right time to make masses aware for getting their assets insured, so as to get compensated in case of any mishappening.
Many people have misconception of insurance as being a costly affair.
It therefore needs to be aggressively communicated that the insurance rate is only Rs. 0.319 per Rs. 1000 per year, and one can get an insurance policy of Rs. 1.0 crore for building value and Rs. 14.5 lakh for contents for one year against a premium of Rs. 3191 only, and that too for 13 different perils that include (i) fire, (ii) lightning, (iii) explosion or implosion, (iv) earthquake, (v) storm, cyclone, flood and inundation, (vi) land subsidence, landslide or rockslide, (vii) forest fire, (viii) impact damage by any external physical object, (ix) missile test operations, (x) riot, strikes and malicious damage, (xi) acts of terrorism, (xii) bursting of overhead tank, apparatus and pipes, and (xiii) leakage from automatic sprinkler installations.
This can well be done in collaboration with some insurance agency that could at the same time tailor a special policy suiting the needs of the people. This in turn would greatly reduce the burden of disasters on public exchequer.
Besides promoting insurance of assets the state could at the same time consider making it compulsory as in case of vehicles, and work out a mechanism of bundling the premium of the same with house tax or other bills paid routinely by people.
Every single moment that we waste, thus draws us close to the impending Big One that is sure to crumble all our compromised structures and bring down everything sited over vulnerable and unstable slopes like Joshimath.
Joshimath is a warning bell, and if we do not plan and react appropriately we are waiting dumbfounded for the dooms day.