As the Ground Shifts Beneath Their Feet, People of Joshimath Need Credible Information

Government authorities’ decision to hide factual reports on the land subsidence only furthers a sense of paranoia.

Midway through the movie Don’t Look Up (2021), the outspoken PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is bundled into a car, a bag over her head. The White House, we are told, wants her “off the grid”. She is taken to a warehouse – the sort of place where CIA and FBI agents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in Hollywood movies – and charged with violating national security secrets. The Hobson’s choice offered to her is to either face prosecution or suspend “all public media appearances and incendiary language relating to Comet Dibiasky”, an interstellar object on a collision course with earth. Exasperated, she acquiesces to the gag order.

Don’t Look Up is a satirical take on the collective apathy towards climate change; only, the slow burn of fossil fuel is replaced by the more imminent threat of a comet crashing into our planet. As a couple of scientists try to warn humanity about its potential extinction, they discover a media, an administration, and indeed, a society that is not just unwilling to face the truth but would even deny it. This premise and the caricatured characters border on the farcical, with plot devices designed to produce absurd scenarios that would be inconceivable in the real world we inhabit. After all, would any government dealing with a natural disaster, issue an edict prohibiting researchers and scientists from talking about the event? Surely not. Right?

On January 11, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), one of the centres of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), issued a preliminary report on the land subsidence issue occurring in Joshimath. The word ‘subsidence’ entered the public lexicon at the turn of the year as disturbing images of cracked roads and tilted buildings began to emanate from Joshimath. Soon the news headlines were dominated by accounts of buildings being demolished and families being evacuated to relief centres in the peak of winter, as the ground began sinking – quite literally – below the feet of the alarmed residents of this hill town.

Predictably, there has been considerable debate surrounding the cause of the subsidence. While expert agencies are continuing to investigate the factors that could have triggered this crisis, media reports have cited unplanned construction and over-population as potential reasons. In particular, Joshimath residents have sought to blame the tunnelling done by an NTPC Ltd. project (the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project) in the area – a claim vehemently denied by NTPC. Whatever the cause, what is not in debate is the fact of land subsidence occurring in Joshimath. It was this very fact that was highlighted by the preliminary report issued by the NRSC on January 11.

According to media articles, the NRSC report suggested that Joshimath underwent slow subsidence (land sinking of around 9 cm) between April to November 2022 but there was a “rapid subsidence event” (land sinking of close to 5 cm) over a span of 12 days in December 2022–January 2023. Now, if you are of the assiduous sort and feel compelled to read the NRSC report yourself, there is some bad news. The report is no longer available on the NRSC website.

Media outlets have quoted an Uttarakhand cabinet minister as saying that the report had created panic in Joshimath and that he had spoken to the director, ISRO-NRSC and asked if the report was their “official take”. The director had informed him that the report would be updated; instead, it was removed. Presumably, the preliminary report based on satellite images prepared by an agency which (according to its website) has the mandate to generate and provide information for disaster mitigation, relief and management, does not qualify as an ‘official take’.

While this intriguing case of the disappearing NRSC report was playing out, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued an Office Memorandum on January 13 directing as many as a dozen technical/research bodies to stop interacting with the media or sharing data on social media regarding the ground subsidence in Joshimath. The rationale cited for this instruction was that such activities by experts/scientists were creating confusion among the people.

There can be no doubt that tackling panic and confusion, especially when perpetuated by misinformation, is a crucial part of disaster management efforts. But using that as grounds to issue gag orders is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, if the COVID-19 experience taught us anything it was that the absence of facts and information about a crisis is what most fuels panic amongst the public. Given free reign, the human mind is adept at running wild and imagining dreadful scenarios, which can sometimes be far-removed and far worse than reality. Therefore, hard, scientific facts, when available, are eminently preferable to the anxious speculations of a harried people.

Second, as many regimes over many decades have discovered, banning something is the surest way of putting it in the limelight – the notorious Streisand effect. The disappearance of the NRSC report and the NDMA directive have (rightly) attracted a lot of criticism and, ironically, triggered deeper concerns about the extent and prevalence of land subsidence. This has all ended up being an avoidable and unnecessary distraction from the on-ground relief and rehabilitation work being undertaken in Joshimath.

And thirdly, at times of adversity, trust and transparency should form the guiding principles for engagement between the authorities and the public. Instead, causing scientific papers to be pulled from the public domain and restraining experts from expressing their views only serves to add to the sense of foreboding and paranoia. Such actions speak to the regrettable tendency to stifle and conceal, rather than focusing on the need to inform and educate.

As per latest reports, multiple technical teams have been asked to submit their reports on the disaster-affected areas of Joshimath, in the coming days. One hopes the findings and observations of these reports will find their way into the public domain and generate healthy discourse on solutions and mitigation measures that can aid the impacted regions. At a time when the ground beneath their feet appears to be shifting, the availability of credible facts and information is all the more necessary to fortify the people of Joshimath.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.