SC wants ‘load carrying’ capacity of Himalayan hill towns evaluated

To address concerns over sustainability of the hill towns in the wake of frequently occurring ecological disasters there, the court has decided to form a panel of experts to study the load carrying capacity of tourist spots in 12 states. A report by Mudit Mathur

The Supreme Court will set up  panel of experts on environment, hydrology, ecology and climate studies drawn from government institutes to assess the “carrying capacity” of overcrowded hill stations in twelve states/UTs including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and other Himalayan states.

The Court was considering the plight of the people facing serious threat to their lives, livelihood and properties due to frequent incidents of land subsistence, landslides and disasters happening mainly because of unplanned growth, overcrowding and ambitious heavy construction activities in violation of ecological norms and recommendations of expert geologists and environmental scientists.

While hearing preliminary submission advanced by Akash Vashishtha, Advocate appearing for Greater Noida-based Dr Ashok Kumar Raghav in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), said unless load carrying capacity of tourist spots in hill states was assessed for a reformulation of master plans, such environmental and ecological disasters would continue to endanger the sustainability of these towns. A bench headed by CJI DY Chandrachud remarked, “It is a very important issue.”

The court asked the Union of India and the petitioner to suggest what should be the remit of the committee. “We’ll confine the panel’s work to the Himalayan states. Give us draft suggestions and we will take it up on 28 August,” the SC said. Can’t wait for all states to respond to Centre’s template, says apex court.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s suggestion that a committee of experts be formed to assess the “carrying capacity” of hill stations, additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati informed the bench that the Union government, based on several directions from the National Green Tribunal, had framed a template for hill stations in all states and sought their responses as “land” fell within the constitutional jurisdiction of the states.

The bench said it would adopt a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, the Union government can seek response in eight weeks from all the states to its template for sustainable development and urbanisation of hill stations while on the other, it would constitute an expert body for determining the carrying capacity of the Himalayan states.

The Supreme Court has issued notices to Environment, Jal Shakti and Earth Sciences ministries of Union of India and governments of 11 states including Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram, Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.  But some of these states including Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Ministry of Jal Shakti have filed their counter affidavits but some states have just filed their powers. Though notice has been served to the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, however, no response has been given by them to the apex court.

“We cannot wait for all the states to respond to the Centre’s template. After the Centre receives the responses from the states, it can collate it and give the court its suggestions. Simultaneously, the expert body can assess the carrying capacity of the Himalayan states,” said the bench headed by Chief Justice, Justice J.B. Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Mishra and posted the matter for passing of orders on August 28.

The bench asked the Centre to suggest the names of institutes with expertise to carry out such a study. “Tell us which are these institutes and their broad terms of reference,” the court said. “We will nominate 3-4 institutes, which can nominate their representatives to the committee, which can study on the carrying capacity.”

The petitioner had sought a direction to the Centre to determine the “carrying capacity of all ecologically fragile areas, hill stations, high-altitude areas, highly visited areas and tourist destinations in all the 12 states/UTs in the Himalayan region in terms of tourist inflow and its impact, vehicular traffic, scarcity of ground and surface water, impact on air, water, trees, forests and biodiversity as well as climate, along with availability of waste management infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

Petitioner said he frequently visited hill stations which are situated in ecologically fragile areas and despite the heavy flow of tourists, the cities do not have a master plan, area development plan, or a zonal development plan to ensure planned growth.

The petition stressed on determining carrying capacity for a realistic assessment of the availability of drinking water, sewerage, infrastructure, parking space, health and emergency services that could help fix a cap on the inflow of tourists and vehicles and take corrective measures to preserve the ecological balance around these places.

The developments came after traumatic tragedy during heavy monsoon floods that wreaked havoc in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, resulting in the deaths of at least 103 people across the two states in landslides, building collapses, and damage to roads and other infrastructure.

Joshimath faces threat to its survival

In Uttarakhand, the high-powered committee on the all-weather Char Dham Road headed by Ravi Chopra, which was formed in August 2019, had red-flagged construction of a Helang bypass in its report. However, after the matter went to court, the Supreme Court in May 2022 gave permission to go ahead with this stretch.

Overlooking geo-scientific reports and the threat of increasing global warming on glaciers, the successive governments have played havoc on the poor people of the town with their properties acquired in Joshimath by spending their lifelong savings facing a grave danger now. Hundreds of houses, hospitals, Army establishments, temples, roads are under a continuous threat of sinking which is aggravating with each passing day.

Initial studies about fragile slopes of Joshimath were done after Heim and Gansserway way back in 1939, noticed that Joshimath town is situated on an old landslide deposit. According to them, the slopes dominated by massive boulders between Joshimath and Tapovan were triggered by a landslide in the geological past from a mountain crest located at 4000 m in the east of Kuari pass.

These slopes were subsequently inhabited in the historical period as they provided required soil cover for agriculture, vegetation for fuel and fodder. Most importantly, the multiple streams and natural springs having the recharge area in the upper alpine catchment provided much needed water for irrigation and domestic consumption. Instead of accepting the geological fragility, the town began to grow rapidly after 1962 due to various urgent strategic requirements.

Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites like Badrinath Dham, Tung Nath and Hemkund Sahib besides Chopta, Valley of Flowers and international skiing destination of Auli for winter sports. The place became strategically important after the 1962 Indo-China war with many of its territories bordering China and Tibet. Since then, it has been a strong base of the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Therefore, the need to cater logistics at Joshimath was quite natural but successive governments failed to develop the structural township in accordance with an eco-sensitive well-planned master plan providing quality infrastructure of drainage, sewage and water supply system.

The ancient township of Joshimath – inhabited on the dip slopes of Alaknanda River at the confluence of Dhauliganga river (at an altitude of over 6,107 feet) had last year suddenly redeveloped cracks in the households, streets and retaining walls affecting around 40 percent of the area.

In view of unforeseen mishap due to the unstoppable deteriorating situation on grounds, more than 725 residential houses, many hotels and public utilities are being evacuated that developed dangerous cracks in the walls, floors and roofs affecting thousands of the town’s residents. The administration demolished two hotels which have dangerously dislocated after developing major cracks besides declaring more than hundred houses uninhabitable.