The residents of Joshimath in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district are living through one of the most dramatic disasters of our times.
What might look shocking and unreal to a lot of us is nothing new for these locals – sinking land and cracked houses have been a reality for many villages in the state's fragile mountains.
The only solution in sight seems to be relocation and rehabilitation. But where is the space for relocation? And if the people are relocated, how will they find livelihoods for survival in a state where outmigration is the trend? These continue to remain the pressing questions for Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami's government in Uttarakhand.
What Is Being Done & Why Is It Not Enough?
All the families whose houses have been found to be uninhabitable due to cracks in the structures have been relocated to hotels and homestays temporarily.
They are being provided dry ration kits and cooked packaged food while the situation is being assessed by appointed sectoral offices, according to the Chamoli District Magistrate.
Additionally, families whose houses have been deemed unfit to live in due to large cracks in the building will be allocated Rs 4,000 each on a monthly basis for the next six months.
Uttarakhand's rehabilitation policy requires that citizens be compensated with Rs 3,60,000 – and be allocated 100 square feet of land.
Why is this not enough?
Residents of affected villages complain that the monetary compensation and land are inadequate for them to be able to start afresh in a new place. To give some context, 100 square feet of land would be the size of an average-sized bedroom in an urban high-rise apartment.
The villagers demand relocation, but they would have to fight a long battle.
"Initially, the local administration wanted us to shift to a makeshift place in a primary school but that was without our cattle. If something happens to our cattle, who will bear the loss?"Sanju Kaparwan, a local from Raini Village, Chamoli, Uttarakhand
And even when the government finally agrees to relocate them, the fight doesn't end. "Now, they have decided to relocate us to a place near Subhai village, but again, as we have seen in the other cases, the place allocated to us is quite less," Sanju added.
"Additionally, we are afraid that this decision will remain only on paper. Monsoon is here, and we are spending every night in fear of whether we will be alive by tomorrow."
In Joshimath, on 3 January, minuscule cracks in roadways had increased in size. As of 10 January, 678 buildings have been marked unsafe.
Why Rehabilitation May Only Be a Temporary Solution
One big example is Raini village in Chamoli district. Raini suffered through a flash flood in 2021. The flood caused the cracks in the ground to increase in size. Geologists declared the region unfit to inhabit.
The residents of the village have also been demanding rehabilitation to a safer place. Subhai village, five kilometers from Raini, has been marked by state officials for their relocation.
Raini and Joshimath are two out of 395 villages that have been identified to be situated in the disaster-prone belts of 12 districts of Uttarakhand. Thousands of villagers have been demanding relocation and rehabilitation for decades.
"Raini is not the first village which is under discussion for relocation in the state. Scores of villages have been rehabilitated over the years."Atul Satti, a local environmental activist
The frequency of such events makes the city and its people economically fragile. The lack of state support adds to their vulnerability. Those without any financial backup find themselves helpless with even migration not being a viable option, say experts.
"Relocation of a bunch of people to another place also has an impact on the irrigation, meaning grazing and cultivation land, which would then be divided among a larger number of people. Hence, we would try to relocate the affected families within a radius of 300-500 meters, so that they would not have to deal with difficulties."Nand Kishore Joshi, Disaster Management Officer, Raini Village
Challenges of Rehabilitation
Relocation is a challenge for the government due to the lack of land. But the bigger challenge that follows is rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation is a slow process where people who have been displaced are stuck in temporary shelters or forced to relocate, while they wait for government compensation, often without any means of livelihood.
Several reports suggest that villages like Pang-Muranda or Chameli in the Chamoli district have been completely evacuated and relocated on paper, but rehabilitation continues to be a challenge. There are no roads, no water supply, and there is a severe lack of basic infrastructure.
Even after relocation, several people come back to their older villages due to the lack of facilities at relocation sites and continue to live in the fear of disaster.
"For instance, a village named Paing, which is located just above Raini, was relocated to Lambri some 13-14 years ago. However, dissatisfied with the compensation and area provided, villagers keep shuttling between the two villages as per the season. They come down to Lambri village during monsoon when the risk of landslides is high but go back to Paing post the rainy season. The same goes for Chai village, which was rehabilitated in Marwadi Chak Pakh village in 2007."Atul Satti, a local environmental activist
(Our on-ground climate journalism needs your insights, ideas, and financial support - as we cover the biggest crisis of our times. Become a Q-Insider so we can bring more such stories to light.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)