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Explained: Causes behind Sinking Uttarakhand’s Town ‘Joshimath’

Jan 10, 2023

Causes behind Sinking Uttarakhand’s Town ‘Joshimath’
In today's edition of our Current Affairs, we will discuss Causes behind Sinking Uttarakhand’s Town ‘Joshimath. The topic's relevance to the UPSC CSE syllabus is mentioned below. For Prelims: General issues on Environmental Ecology, Biodiversity, and Climate Change Land subsidence, Landslide, High-risk seismic ‘Zone-V’, Hydroelectric projects, Mishra Commission, Catastrophic floods For Mains: GS Paper III - Disaster and Disaster Management Highlights of the situation in Joshimath, About Joshimath, Causes that led to Joshimath Sinking, Government Initiatives


Recently Joshimath, one of Uttarakhand’s town has been declared a landslide-subsidence zone, as the town appears to be sinking, causing panic in the whole city.

Practice Question

The Himalayas are highly prone to landslides. Discuss the causes and suggest suitable measures of mitigation? (150 words, 10 marks)

Highlights of the situation in Joshimath

  • There are a total of 4,500 buildings in Joshimath and 610 of these have developed huge cracks, making them unfit for habitation.
  • Land subsidence has been going on slowly in Joshimath for quite some time but it has increased over the past week with huge cracks appearing in houses, fields, and roads.
  • The situation worsened apparently after a water channel beneath the town erupted.
  • Temporary relief centers have been set up at four-five safe places within Joshimath.

About Joshimath

  • Joshimath, the Himalayan pilgrim town is located at a height of 6,000 feet in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district.
  • The town is on the route to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib falls in high-risk seismic ‘Zone-V’.
  • Joshimath acts as a key transit point for tourists traveling to both Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib as a halt here is what most take before carrying on with their journey. 
  • It is also of strategic importance to the Indian Army.
Note: Seismic ‘Zone’.
  • A total of ~59% of the land mass of India (covering all states of India) is prone to earthquakes of different intensities. 
  • As per the seismic zoning map of the country, the total area is classified into four seismic zones (II, III, IV, V), such as:
Zone II: It is the least active region.  Zone III: Approximately, ~ 30% of the country falls in Zone III. Zone IV:  Approximately, ~18% area of the country falls in Zone IV.  Zone V: It is seismically the most active region. Approximately, ~ 11% area of the country falls in Zone V.

Causes that led to Joshimath Sinking

  • Capacity: Joshimath was built on an ancient landslide site and has always had low bearing capacity. Despite this, the town in the past few decades has witnessed an explosion in population and construction activities.
  • Soil Erosion: Soil erosion due to running streams from Vishnuprayag and sliding along the natural streams has also had a role to play in sealing the town’s fate.
  • Development Activities: Hydroelectric projects and the expansion of the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH-7) have made the slopes unsteady. The NTPC projects are majorly blamed for the gradual sinking. 
  • Ignored Warnings: The residents of Joshimath have been complaining to the government about cracks in their houses for over a year now. However, the administration has become active only after its own building started developing cracks. The first such report that warned the government came out decades ago by the Mishra Commission in 1976.
  • Other Causes: There has been a spurt in unusual weather events in the Uttarakhand Himalayas, which have left behind enormous sediment in areas above 2,500 meters. They have the potential to cause catastrophic floods under unusual weather events. The valleys here are also clogged with large quantities of loose sediments, making them fragile and unstable. 

Initiatives taken by the government:

  • Ban on Construction Activities: The district administration subsequently put a ban on the construction of the Helang bypass by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), work on the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project, and other construction work undertaken by the municipality with immediate effect till further orders.
  • Rehabilitation: The NTPC and the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) have also been asked to build 2,000 prefabricated houses each in advance for the affected families. The Geological Survey of India has also been asked to examine the suitability of Koti Farm, Herb Institute, and the Horticulture Department's land in Joshimath and in Pipalkoti's Semaldala area for rehabilitation purposes.
  • Rapid Study: The National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad, and the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun have been asked to conduct a study of Joshimath through satellite imagery and submit a detailed report with photographs.

Way Forward

  • The government must put a full stop to the NTPC and BRO projects. Only then Joshimath will be saved.
  • Experts are also recommending a complete shutdown of development and hydroelectric projects in the region, and replantation, especially at vulnerable sites to retain soil capacity. 
  • The sinking of Joshimath is a wake-up call on how human interference can have a deep impact on the ecologically fragile Himalayan region. It’s also why we can no longer continue to ignore the problem.
Additional Information:
News Source: The Hindu https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/pmo-holds-high-level-meeting-on-joshimath-crisis/article66352752.ece  https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/environment/explainer-why-joshimath-is-sinking-and-its-larger-environmental-repercussions-9826021.html 

Frequently Asked Questions for Uttarakhand's Joshimath sinking

Q.What are the causes behind the sinking of Uttarakhand's town Joshimath?

The sinking of Joshimath, a town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, is believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including: 1.Uncontrolled urbanization: The rapid urbanization of the area, without proper planning and development regulations, has led to the degradation of the soil and the weakening of the foundations of buildings. 2.Deforestation: The indiscriminate cutting down of trees in the surrounding areas has led to soil erosion, making the ground more susceptible to landslides and sinkholes. 3.Climate change: The increased frequency and intensity of rainfall due to climate change has also contributed to the erosion and destabilization of the soil. 4.Construction activities: The construction of new buildings and infrastructure in the area without proper planning and guidelines has also contributed to the sinking of the town. 5.Earthquakes: The area is prone to seismic activity and small earthquakes can also cause sinkholes and landslides. 6.Uncontrolled mining: Uncontrolled mining activities in the area have also led to the weakening of the soil and the formation of sinkholes. Overall, the sinking of Joshimath is a result of a combination of human-induced and natural causes, highlighting the need for proper development planning and regulations to protect the town and its residents.

2. What's happening in Joshimath? What are the reasons behind it?

According to recent reports, the town of Joshimath in the Indian state of Uttarakhand is experiencing a phenomenon known as "subsidence" or sinking. This refers to the gradual settling or lowering of the ground surface due to various factors. If you want to enhance your IAS preparation and crack the UPSC CSE examination, download the PrepLadder app and get access to the finest study material for UPSC curated by India’s top UPSC faculty. You can also join our Telegram channel for UPSC coaching and to stay updated with the latest information about the UPSC exam.
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