Hydro Disaster · Uttarakhand

Systemic failures at the root of Joshimath disaster

The 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project of NTPC (formerly National Thermal Power Corporation Limited) has remained controversial at least since 2009 as it is again now in January 2023. This time it is in the dock over the sinking of Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand.

The Asian Development Bank is funding the transmission component of this hydropower project. Moreover, at one stage, ADB was also considering funding the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project too, an environment impact assessment of the project can still be found on the ADB website. The EIA makes no reference to the serious geological infirmities of the site. The ADB is thus equally responsible for what is now happening in Joshimath.

Rather unconvincingly, NTPC is trying its best to wash its hands off any involvement in sinking and collapse of hundreds of buildings, roads and even temple in Joshimath. A number of buildings in the nearby army brigade camp are also damaged. Uttarakhand and central government are trying their best to help the cause of NTPC. On January 13, 2023 following Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sharing its findings about sinking in Joshimath, National Disaster Management Authority working under Union Home Minister issued an order asking all agencies to refrain from sharing any findings about the Joshimath crisis till an expert committee gives its report. This is unfortunate. An expert committee including National Disaster Management Authority, National Institute of Disaster Management, Geological Survey of India, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Central Buildings Research Institute, among others is investigating the cause of the Joshimath disaster. Involvement of some of these institutes (e.g. GSI) in this committee involves conflict of interest and they were also involved in sanctioning the Tapoval Vishnugad project.

Defending NTPC, the letter written by Secretary, Union Ministry of Power to the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand on January 11, 2023 tries to suggest that the Joshimath subsidence is for other reasons and the NTPC’s hydro project has no role to play. The letter makes a number of misleading statements, for example: “Construction of the tunnel in this stretch has been done through Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) which causes no disturbance to the surrounding rock mass.”

The reality is that out of 13.22 km of Head Race Tunnel (HRT, including 966 m upstream of intake), about 4.95 km is being constructed by Drill and Blasting method. NTPC at no stage has made public as to how many times it has used blasting for the tunnel and other project related work, at what locations, on what days and of what quantities.

As far as the 8.27 km of HRT that is being constructing using Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), the TBM has been stuck at least thrice (Dec 2009, Feb 2012 and Sept 2012) and for almost seven years in the latest episode. Moreover, as a detailed technical paper (by Bernard Millen et al) published in 2015 describes, these instances in fact have capacity to cause “subtle and rapid major changes to the hydraulic properties—particularly increased permeability” long distance away from the tunnel location through multiple processes. Moreover, it can “lead to an automatic increase in the hydraulic permeability of several orders of magnitude”. So if anyone is saying that the TBM only has local impacts, they are clearly misleading.

There are a lot of misconceptions about a Run of the River Hydropower project like the Tapovan Vishnugad Project. Firstly, this ADB (Asian Development Bank) funded project has a 22 m high dam, which comes under the definition of large dam. The impactful components of the project include excavation and building of the main dam, coffer dam, desilting chamber, Head Race Tunnel, Adits, Intake, Power House, Surge Shaft, tailrace tunnel, submergence, mining of materials, construction of roads, colony, dumping of over 3.1 million cubic meters of muck, among others. The totality of impact of all this during construction (the impacts during operation would be additional) and implications of such work on various aspects of the environment including geology and underground hydrology would be huge and were not even assessed.

The Ministry of Power letter also mentions another committee of Aug 2010 that also involved Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee (IIT-R). Here again there is conflict interest since IIT-R also did the carrying capacity cum cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins in 2011, which was a very shoddy piece of work. Just to illustrate, the report listed the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Project more than once in Bhagirathi basin! The report completely failed to assess the cumulative impacts and in fact read more like a hydropower lobbying report. IIT-R was a member of yet another committee of August 2022 mentioned by the Ministry of Power letter. But unfortunately governance in India conveniently, does not seem to understand the complications of conflict of interest! Interestingly, none of these committees had any independent members.

Somethings though are beyond doubt. What is now happening in Joshimath is certainly a man-made disaster, claims of the contrary by the officials even before the probe notwithstanding. The warnings were there since 1886 when Atkins indicated in the Himalayan Gazetteer that the town is located on landslide debris. The 1976 Mishra Committee report also warned about the limited load bearing capacity of slopes. In 2009 when the tunnel boring machine of the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project on Dhauliganga River punctured an aquifer near Selang (this village closer to the tunnel is also facing cracks and subsidence now), it lead to daily discharge of millions of litres of water for several weeks, scientists had warned that this can lead to subsidence. The 2013 Kedarnath disaster was another wake up call, followed by several, the latest one in February 2021 when again maximum number out of the 200 deaths occurred at the construction site of the same Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project. The erosion of toe of the left bank of Alaknanda river just downstream of Joshimath that followed the February 2021 floods and the Oct 2021 floods are now being discussed. The cracks in Joshimath aggravated in the last week of Dec 2022, but took a quantum jump on the night of January 2, 2023 when about 400 litres per minute muddy water suddenly started gushing out from underground in Marwari area of the Joshimath town.

The Indian Remote Sensing Agency and ISRO are now telling us that the town is sinking by 6-6.5 cm a year since at least for 18 months if not longer and that in 12 days since Dec 27 2022 the subsidence has been over 5.4 cms, besides 8.9 cm subsidence between Aprial and Nov 2022. Government officials are now telling us about the loose soil here with low bearing capacity, worsened by percolation of water, slope stability getting worsened by the aquifer puncturing & lack of adequate drainage in Joshimath. They are now telling us that the geological, geophysical and geotechnical study has never been done here (though they should have been, including on recommendation of Ravi Chopra Committee), and they will now do it. The Union Earth Science Minister is now setting up micro seismic observatories around Joshimath. It sounds eerily similar to NTPC declaring after the Feb 2021 disaster that they will now put up early warning systems in the upstream.

It is welcome that these are being done now. But it still begs the question, where was all this wisdom so far? None of this is rocket science. Before sanctioning and taking up massive projects here were these realities taken into account? Such projects include the big hydropower projects in the immediate vicinity of Joshimath (these include the 400 MW operating Vishnuprayag hydropower project, the 520 MW under construction Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project and the 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydropower project also under construction), the widening of the 5.5 km long Helang Marwari Char Dham Highway, the Asia’s longest Joshimath Auli ropeway project and the Rishikesh Karnaprayag among other railway lines under construction in Uttarakhand. It may be recalled that the Char Dham Highway did not even have an Environment Impact Assessment, Environment Appraisal or Management plan or approval, following manipulations indulged by the Union Ministry of Highways and condoned by MoEF and judiciary.

Today the ropeway project is officially put off. People in Chamoli and independent geologists are telling us that if we want to save whatever remains of Joshimath and surrounding landscape, we need to abandon the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project and widening of the Helang Marwari Char Dham Highway. The Ravi Chopra Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had also recommended this.

Many questions arise here. Were basic studies done to ascertain about the feasibility and consequences of such major interventions in this area? Did the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of these projects look at the geological, geohydrological, geotechnical and geophysical realities and the consequences of these interventions on the landscape level and on the disaster potential of the vulnerable area? Who appraised the EIAs of these projects and approved the projects based on EIAs that did not take any of these into account in any credible way? Will those members of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects and the MoEF itself that cleared these projects be held accountable?

Each major hydropower project gets clearance from the Geological Survey of India, Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority. How did these agencies cleared these projects when basic comprehensive investigations were not done, known realities were ignored?

Experts are also telling us about the carrying capacity limitations. Incidentally, a carrying capacity & cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin was commissioned by MoEF and was conducted by Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee way back in 2011 that was supposed to include stability of landforms into account. The report read like the report of a hydropower lobby group. Will those from IIT Roorkee who did the study and those from Uttarakhand, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Central Water Commission who sanctioned it, be questioned?

SANDRP, of which this author is member, had raised geological and other aspects being absent from the IIT-Roorkee report right in 2011. Earlier in Sept 2004, we had written to the MoEF and EAC about the inadequate EIA of the Tapovan Vishnugad project and lack of proper public hearings. A petition filed before the National Environment Appellate Authority against the environment clearance to the project by the MATU jan sangathan was rejected without even hearing on merit!

Some characteristics of our governance system are once again exposed. There is no accountability, nor there is system in place to take into account past experiences while taking new decisions. In fact, there is no system in place to ensure that we learn lessons from past experiences. The governance does not understand conflict of interest issue. Our system has very little faith in independent expertise, very little faith in people and their wisdom. People who have track record of applying their mind and taking independent position have no place in our governance. All the wisdom is assumed to be present in the governance system.

The Expert Appraisal Committees that scrutinise and decide to sanction the projects are full of yes people. Credible EIAs are a rarity. The EACs have non-existent rejection rate. No consequences follow for submitting fraudulent, dishonest, cut and paste EIAs. Even after such catastrophic disasters like those in June 2013 and February 2021, there are no comprehensive reports to fix accountability. We do not have systems in place to learn lessons from such disasters. These events and even climate change provide us opportunities to break from the past, but we refuse to see them in any way except pushing business-as-usual.

Our disaster management is pathetic in terms of minimising the disaster and preparedness for the disaster. We are definitely good at rescue and relief once the disaster sets in, but a failure before the disaster happens.

The big hydropower projects today are not economically viable (even if we do not include the social and environmental costs) with cost of power from any project now underway or planned being not less than Rs 6-7 per unit when cheaper power is available in the grid and from alternatives like solar and wind. The biggest evidence of this non viability of big hydro is the fact that private sector is overwhelmingly not interested in hydro projects.

Here the conclusion of the NDMA report of April 2022 about the Chamoli disaster of Feb 2021 is worth noting: “In the long run, the pursuit of alternative sources of energy will need to be looked at since this zone appears to be environmentally fragile. A separate study on that may be set up by the Ministry of Power.”

The argument that these projects are required to store, balance the power from solar and wind or provide peaking power holds no water considering that we already have over 47000 MW of existing hydro and no one is even monitoring or optimising peaking power generated by this capacity. Anecdotal evidence shows that indeed in many cases these projects are operating as base load stations when they could have generated peaking power. Most of the existing pump storage hydro capacities, designed to provide peaking power, are not even operating in pump storage mode as it is not economically viable. It is another story how close to 30 000 MW of pump storage capacity is now under various stages of development. 97% of our existing large dams do not even have hydropower component. There is clearly no case for more big hydropower projects, in fact we should be thinking in terms of decommissioning of unviable and unsafe dams.

It may be added here that in the context of climate change, big hydro projects actually lead to destruction of adaptation resources like the river, forests, biodiversity and lead to multi-fold increase disaster potential of the area. The propaganda that hydro is climate friendly is just that: propaganda.

There should be no doubt that the ongoing disaster is not going to stop at Joshimath. News are coming from a number of other places in Uttarakhand, neighbouring Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere that similar situations prevail and evolve there. If we do not show the will to understand and correct the systemic causes behind the failures at Joshimath, we are destined to be revisited by disasters, with possibly increasing frequency, intensity and spread. Worryingly, a paper by geologists of HNG Garhwal University in Uttarakhand among others, currently under pre-publication review suggests: “Results revealed that the displacement in these hillslopes might reach up to 20–25 m that will further aggravate the situation.” In the context of Joshimath region being close to the Main Central Thrust fault line of Himalayas making it seismically highly vulnerable, the paper cites three major earthquakes in the region: “1 Sep. 1803 (Mw 7.8), 20 Oct. 1991 (Mw 6.8), and 29 Mar. 1999 (Mw 6.6) having hypocentral distance less than 30 km”.

The ongoing disaster in the form of sinking Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is still an evolving situation. The buildings are still collapsing, more buildings are joining the list of damaged buildings. The studies are still ongoing to find out the root cause of the disaster. The responses of the state and central governments and their agencies are still developing. One only hopes that these responses will not be dictated by the economic fundamentalist development model that is at the root of this disaster.

It would be prudent if the Prime Minister were to take the leadership here to institute an independent review of the situation and what lessons we can learn. Stop all the major construction activities around Joshimath till such a review is done. The PM can also declare a new Himalayan Policy that takes into account the realities of Himalayas. Get ready to walk away from disastrous ongoing projects. Start initiatives to tailor the development pathways taking into account local realities, through a truly democratic process.

Afterall Joshimath is not just any town, it has such a huge religious, historical, strategic and even Himalayan significance.

Himanshu Thakkar

BOX 1: TBM trapping events at Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project

As a detailed technical paper (by Bernard Millen et al) published in 2015 describes, since October 2008, 8.27 km of the HRT has been under construction by a Herrenknecht Double Shield—Tunnel Boring Machine (DS-TBM). The rest of the HRT is been constructed by drill and blast methods. The internal finished diameter of the HRT 5.64 m; the excavation diameter is 6.57 m.

TBM trapping events:

1. December 2009 at chainage (Ch) 3,016 m at a depth of some 900 m in a heterogeneous fault zone. Approximately 24 h later, massive surges of high pressure subsurface water, containing faulted rock material flowed with the initial flow rates reaching circa 700 L/s compounding the trapping problem.
2.  February 2012 at Ch 5,840 (and 5,859 m see below) in the same circa 20 m wide fault zone at a depth of some 700 m. Water inflow (1–2 L/s) started some 20 h later. The situation then greatly deteriorated as the water rapidly eroded the water sensitive fault gouge.
3. October 2012 at 5,859 m in the same circa 20 m wide fault zone at a depth of some 700 m. The TBM stuck in this instances remained stuck for over seven years.

The events caused subtle and rapid major changes to the hydraulic properties—particularly increased permeability— of the rock mass within several metres and probably many tens of metres of the tunnel walls. This may have happened through these processes: (1) chemical processes such as precipitation, dissolution and weathering; (2) erosion processes; (3) closure of fractures and voids by physical processes (4) opening or making new fractures and voids by physical processes. This can lead to an automatic increase in the hydraulic permeability of several orders of magnitude.

Remedial measures to fill cavities and other similar remedies are costly and cause time delays. All three areas where the Tapovan- Vishnugad TBM has become trapped to date will require extensive grouting and other works to be carried out such as replacement of the segmental lining with a more robust lining as the HRT will be a pressure tunnel during operation.


Cost of the project was estimated to be Rs 2811 Cr when the work started. It went up to Rs 2978 Cr in March 2008, R 3846 Cr in March 2014, Rs 5867 Cr in 2019 and reportedly Rs 7103 Cr now. That is escalation of 153% over the original cost.

The project was supposed to be commissioned by 2012-13 as per original schedule. It’s now projected to be commissioned by 2024-25, but that is clearly unlikely.

TIME LINE of Tapovan Vishnugad HEP

Nov 2006: Project Work started

Dec 25, 2009: TBM strikes aquifer, leading to water ingress into Head Race Tunnel (HRT) of upto 700 litres per sec. Work stopped.

Feb 2012: TBM Stuck.

Sept 2012 to May 2019: TBM remains stuck at 5436 m “due to cavity”.

June 2013: Uttarakhand Disaster damages the project.

Feb 2021: Chamoli disaster practically destroys large parts of the project

July 25, 2021: Slide over TBM portal, covered the portal.

April 23, 2022: Rock fall near HRT Intake adit portal: Electric cable damaged

Dec 2022-Jan 2023: Joshimath Sinking: Work stopped. Water from aquifer at Marwari flowing out at the rate of 800 litres per minute since January 2.

NOTE: 1. An edited version of this article was published at: https://frontline.thehindu.com/environment/tapovan-vishnugad-hydropower-plant-ntpc-project-at-the-heart-of-joshimath-crisis/article66386447.ece in FRONTLINE issue dated Feb 10, 2023.

2. A brief article on this subject was published in the HINDU BUSINESS LINE on January 14, 2023, see: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/development-sinks-joshimath/article66375363.ece

One thought on “Systemic failures at the root of Joshimath disaster

  1. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/violation-of-some-green-regulations-may-be-decriminalised-101656787602806.html



    This came out last year July and if it has been implemented as the results are already showing then no one is accountable for the damages in Tapovan or Joshimath, Karnaprayag or elsewhere. People reaching court to seek justice will be slapped with fine.

    So what’s the final outcome? If residents eventually leave their home from Joshimath, Raini, Karnaprayag, Doda or Jharauta, they will be struggling to cope up with their life and their abandoned places will bear the brunt. And even if they move away which is what the authorities are trying to do ie pushing them out from homes and temporary shelters as well, natural calamities will strike anyway multiplied by human-induced damages, at a much larger scale, neither NTPC nor their aka will be accountable for this enormous environmental catastrophe, right?


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