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Joshimath: A case of human ambition gone awry

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Joshimath: A case of human ambition gone awry

Locals in Joshimath blame the situation on the nearby Tapovan project of the National Thermal Power Corporation, or NTPC. Apart from hotels and commercial establishments, the Uttarakhand government has stated that 678 homes are currently in danger...

Joshimath: A case of human ambition gone awry

Thinking Point

Arunima Sen Gupta

Satellite images taken between July 2020 and March 2022 by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) show that Joshimath and its surrounding areas have been sinking at a rate of 6.5 cm or 2.5 inch per year. The sinking areas are indicated by red dots. According to data, they are spread throughout the valley and are not limited to the town of Joshimath. The disaster is not confined to Joshimath. Residents of one locality, Bahuguna Nagar, in Karnaprayag, a town seen as the gateway to Joshimath, have reported massive cracks that have appeared in at least 50 homes in recent months. The Uttarakhand government has stated that it will investigate the situation. In fact, reports also say that some areas in Himachal Pradesh show similar signs of doom.

The process of demolishing two 'unsafe' hotels in subsidence-hit Joshimath has begun after the administration agreed with property owners demanding fair compensation. Two hotels - Mount View and Mallari Inn - were declared 'unsafe' after they tilted and their upper portion touched each other. The administration declared both buildings unsafe and ordered their demolition. More than 110 families in Joshimath have evacuated, and the entire town is set to be evacuated. The institute in Dehradun has been using satellite data from the area, which has a lot of tectonic activity and is very sensitive. Joshimath, the temple town that had been known to be 'sinking' for some time, reached a tipping point this year as buildings and roads developed massive cracks. The pavements and streets are cracked. For reasons that are not entirely clear, water has been gushing out of farms. Another town 90 kilometres downhill has also begun to develop cracks. Locals in Joshimath blame the situation on the nearby Tapovan project of the National Thermal Power Corporation, or NTPC. Apart from hotels and commercial establishments, the Uttarakhand government has stated that 678 homes are currently in danger.

"People have built their homes with their hard-earned money, but now they must leave," said Ajay Bhatt, the junior minister for defence and Uttarakhand MP who has been dispatched to the state to deal with the situation. "Our first priority is to keep everyone safe. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keeping a close eye on the situation. Officials have been dispatched, and the army has been notified. Cattle shelters will also be built,” he went on to say.

Joshinath's problems appear to be primarily the result of human activity. A lot of water has been pumped out from beneath the ground for farming over the years, making the sand and stone fragile. The town has been slowly sinking as the soil has shifted. "The situation is alarming," says geologist DP Dobhal. It will take up to seven days to take apart the seven-storied Malari Inn and the five-storied Mount View hotels which stand leaning in the danger zone, posing a threat to more than a dozen houses, officials said. The demolitions resumed following a revised compensation deal for residents after more than a hundred protesters in the town of around 20,000 people stopped the work, saying they were not being paid enough compensation. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who visited Joshimath and held meetings with locals and experts on Thursday, said a committee will decide the rate for compensation to be paid to the affected families, keeping in mind the interests of stakeholders. "For now, Rs 1.5 lakh will be given to each affected family starting this evening. This is only a temporary measure. We are still working on compensation rates. Only 25 per cent of buildings in Joshimath are affected," he claimed. "The winter games in Auli are beginning in February and the Char Dham Yatra in a few months. Sending a message outside Joshimath that the entire town is sinking is wrong. It will adversely impact the local economy," the Chief Minister said.

More demolition will follow as over 700 buildings - nearly a fourth of the town's total - have developed cracks. Some are leaning precariously, spurring calls from residents and environmental campaigners for a halt to construction in the ecologically sensitive area. In a rare brief, Army Chief Manoj Pande announced that some troops would be relocated from areas surrounding the sinking town located near the Line of Actual Control or LAC with China. Union Home Minister Amit Shah also held a high-level meeting to review the situation with Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari, RK Singh, Bhupendra Yadav and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and senior government officials at his home.

The town of Joshimath is a gateway to Hindu and Sikh shrines as well as tourist hotspots like Auli. Thousands of people have been relocated since buildings in the town began developing cracks earlier this month. For years, environmentalists and locals have warned about indiscriminate construction in sensitive towns like Joshimath. Ignoring many of these calls, the government has widened roads, and built dams and power plants besides allowing hotels and multi-storey buildings to mushroom. Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana said: "A total of 603 buildings have cracks, it is being ascertained why these cracks are appearing. The team of experts is constantly keeping a tab in Joshimath. The cracks in 603 houses have been categorised into three zones. There are around 60 families in the core zone, out of which 45 families have been shifted, the remaining will be shifted soon. People need to be careful."

Some key developments in Joshimath

1) A spiritual town in Uttarakhand where Adi Shankaracharya, a religious reformer, acquired enlightenment in the eighth century, Joshimath has become a hot topic of discussion in the country, and for a rather scary reason. Several houses in the region have developed huge cracks and with the town situated on a fragile mountain slope, panic has gripped the population that it will totally sink.

2) On January 6, CM Pushkar Singh Dhami ordered an immediate evacuation of around 600 families living in houses with huge cracks. "Saving lives is our first priority. Officials have been asked to shift around 600 families living in endangered houses in Joshimath to safe locations," Dhami told reporters after reviewing the situation in the sinking town with officials via video conference.

3) While the situation was already tense, a temple collapsed on Jan 5 evening in Singdhar ward of Joshimath, further adding to the alarm of residents who have been living under constant fear of a major disaster in the offing. Luckily there was no one inside the temple when it collapsed as it had been abandoned after it developed huge cracks over the past 15 days, locals said.


4) Land subsidence has been going on for more than a year but the problem has aggravated over the past one month, authorities say.

5) Marwari area where an aquifer burst three days ago is the worst hit. Several houses there were damaged in varying degrees while water from the aquifer is constantly flowing down with great force.

6) All construction activities related to mega projects like the Chardham all-weather road (Helang- Marwari bypass) and the NTPC's hydel project have been stopped till further orders on the demand of residents.

7) The Auli ropeway service has also been stopped after a huge crack developed beneath it, former president of the local municipality Rishi Prasad Sati said. A huge crack developed beneath the Auli ropeway, which is Asia's biggest. All construction activities related to mega projects like the Chardham all-weather road and the NTPC's hydel project have been stopped till further orders on the demand of residents. 

8) Chief Minister Dhami has said that for permanent rehabilitation of affected people, alternative locations should be identified in Pipalkoti, Gauchar, and other places.

9) The state government has dispatched a team of experts to the area to assess the situation. Teams from NDRF have also been deployed in the area as a precautionary measure, Chamoli Chief Development Officer (CDO) Lalit Narayan Mishra said January 6. "We have to be alert for the future, so NDRF is being deployed as a precautionary measure," he said. "Due to frequent landslides, NDRF has been called and the team of experts is surveying the affected areas since this morning," he added.

10) Panic has gripped the town. Terrified, many people have left their homes. At the same time, people are being shifted to municipal buildings, gurudwaras, and schools by the administration.

Amid the government efforts to shift affected locals to safer places, the administration has divided the city into Danger, Buffer, and Completely safe zones. R Meenakshi Sundaram, secretary to Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, said that the administration was conducting a survey to assess the danger and buffer zones. "The zone which is totally unsafe, that has to be evacuated immediately, that has been called a danger zone. A buffer zone is a zone which is presently safe but can be endangered in the future. And the third is the completely safe zone. A survey is underway for the danger and buffer zone," the official said. "We are collecting the details of the number of affected families including how many are residential and commercial. Besides this, we are also collecting data of the occupation of the families. Based on this, the decision can be taken on where to shift them. I am taking a look at the possible places," he added. He said the buildings that had sustained the most damage would be demolished. "The buildings which are most damaged will be demolished under the monitoring of NIM and PWD. The administration is making preparations for it," he said.

As many as 603 buildings in the sinking town have developed cracks so far, according to Chamoli District Disaster Management Authority, prompting the authorities to declare Joshimath landslide-subsidence zone. Construction activities have already been banned in Joshimath and nearby areas and affected families are being moved to temporary relief centres. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has asked a petitioner, who has sought the court’s intervention to declare the crisis in Joshimath as a national disaster, to mention his plea for urgent listing. The petitioner, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, has contended that the incident has occurred due to large-scale industrialisation and sought immediate financial assistance and compensation for the people of Uttarakhand.


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