The not-so-common word ‘subsidence’ gained traction in the past few months as the wide cracks on the walls and roads of the Himalayan town of Joshimath created panic not only at this holy town in the Chamoli District of Uttarakhand but across the Himalayan habitations. Based on satellite data, ISRO had estimated that within 12 days, between December 27 and January 8, Joshimath sank by 5.4 cm. The acceleration of subsidence is significant. The threat and consequences posed to the fragile Himalayan ecology by environmentally short-sighted but economically shrewd development interventions have consistently been pointed out by scientists, activists and concerned individuals.
Small hydroelectric projects at Tapovan and Rishi Ganga, Char Dham Highway, tunnels and several constructions that disturb the natural slope and geological peculiarities of the mountains cannot be devoid of consequences. Cloudbursts, massive landslides and flash floods have been frequent occurrences in this area. It has been alleged that the tunneling for the Vishnugad 520 MW hydropower project of NTPC has been an immediate cause for the present crisis. All these activities affect the cohesion of the surface soil, deplete the aquifers, and lead to the development of cracks. This results in shrinkage and eventual subsidence. The alarm bells at Joshimath are only a warning signal with far more inevitable disasters being fomented by thoughtless and avaricious human interventions, always justified by economic and military rationale. Joshimath is the victim of a conspiracy of power, arrogance, avarice and indifference to scientific facts.
Administrative response to the human tragedy and ecological disaster has been more alarming than the crisis itself. The small doses of relief announced by the Uttarakhand government were not only cosmetic and inadequate but bespeak of a denial mode that refuses to confront the real causes of the calamity and an unwillingness to come out with a sustainable rehabilitation package. Waiving power and water bills for six months, freezing loan recovery for one year, releasing withheld wages under MGNREGS and providing an interim relief of `1.5 lakh per affected family are per se not meaningless measures, but they leave the core issue resolutely unaddressed. The fact that the Uttarakhand government asked the District Magistrate of Chamoli for a report (as if it is a law and order issue) is loaded with meaning. It is clearly an instance of trivialising an issue of enormous ecological dimension and human suffering. Unsurprisingly, the Uttarakhand High Court had to order the constitution of an expert panel to study the issues.
The response is not only inadequate but marked by intolerance, apathy and an unmistakable eagerness to suppress facts. However, the government has been prompt and vehement to prohibit ISRO from publishing scientific data and obliterate further reports on the subject. The National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) fears that further sharing of information could be wrongly interpreted causing panic. ISRO’s report was promptly removed from their website.
The responses of the Central and state governments are characterised by perverse assumptions. Firstly, damage control in the media appears to be more important than finding solutions to the real issues. Secondly, there is an obstinate refusal to review the development paradigm covetously followed by the government. Thirdly, the tendency to link ecologically disastrous development initiatives (like the Char Dham highway project) with the military dimension is typical as any opposition could then be easily termed as anti-national. Fourthly, the lack of faith in the value of sharing statistics and facts is an unmistakable watermark.
The gagging of ISRO from sharing further information on the subsidence sends strong signals to the scientific community to keep off. The long-term damage of such an injunction on independent scientific studies and validation by similar studies that would help arrive at calibrated scientific information has long-term calamitous consequences. As the scientific community will now be wary of taking up studies on these life-threatening and environmentally disastrous issues, policy responses could be based on ‘made to order’ statistics that please the powers that be. In the absence of bold and irrefutable data, there will be no pressure to rescind the ongoing development projects. The fears of the local population could then be called baseless and their agitation could be labeled as baseless and unreasonable (if not anti-national!)
The discomfort with statistics that invalidate the government’s claims has been evident in our country in the recent past. The same apathy towards validated data lies at the root of the decision to postpone the decennial census. The government’s fumbling on the figures on deaths during the spike of Covid-19 is not an isolated instance. The averment that the government has no figures on the migrant workers who perished during the lockdown-induced trek back home betrays the same apathy towards calibrated data.
What is at the root of this ‘indifference to information’ phenomenon? A rational decision-making process driven by the larger interest of the citizens cannot afford to ignore the critical value of validated data and other non-quantifiable inputs. However, if the decisions are meant to favour projects that profit the influential few and debilitate the general population, then scientific data becomes the inconvenient truth. Once democratic sentiments and values yield to short-term political goals and corporate interests, then the inconvenient truth has to be necessarily obfuscated. More than the Joshimath terrain, it is Indian democracy that has developed cracks and shown subsidence. Gagging scientific facts is a bad omen and our meek acceptance of it is even worse.
Discomfort with truth is a major malignancy for democracy. Repeated instances of intolerance towards free flow of information do not augur well for a nation hailed as the shining example of a successful democracy. By these precedents, expunging the uncomfortable questions posed to the prime minister in Parliament is the new normal. And ‘IT verification’ at the BBC premises conforms to this abnormal and ominous pattern of subsidence of democratic values.
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University