Joshimath: What's The Future of Those Living in Broken Houses in a Sinking City?
The people of Chamoli district have been living in broken homes long before this incident.
The Quint DAILY
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The residents of Joshimath, a town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, awoke on 3 January to cracks in their homes and roads, and the harsh reality that their city was sinking.
However, these cracks are not a new phenomenon, over the years citizens have noticed cracks in their buildings, roadways and agricultural fields.
The people have been living in broken homes long before this incident brought attention to the problem.
People from Joshimath have been living in fear of their town sinking, especially during the monsoon months when the risk of landslides is significantly increased.
During this time, the cracks in the ground widened further, the floor of their houses and the ground beneath their feet started sinking due to the rains. They have been demanding rehabilitation for a very long time, all to no avail.
There have been several warnings against unregulated construction in the area-- the major cause of the town's sinking-- dating as far back as 1976.
The Mishra Commission had determined that the region was too unable to sustain construction done by removing boulders and blasting the hillside.
The visual evidence of the cracks in the ground and buildings has been more than necessary to conclude that the situation is dangerous as declared by the Department of Disaster Management.
In the wake of this disaster, construction on projects such as the widening of the all-weather Char Dham road between Helang and Marwari, and work in the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan-Vishnugad 520 MW hydropower project, which has evoked a lot of anger amidst the residents, has been immediately halted "until further orders".
"The entire responsibility of Joshimath caving in is on NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project. Continuous blasting in the tunnels have shaken the foundation of our town."Atul Satti, a local environmental activist
Plan of Action
A team of experts has been sent to Joshimath to conduct a survey to inspect the affected areas. This team also included the Disaster Management Secretary, Ranjit Sinha, and Garhwal Division Commissioner, Sushil Kumar.
It was concluded that the water leaking out of the ground may have created a vacuum which could be the reason for the town sinking.
Houses have been evacuated, and people have been relocated to temporary shelters while the situation is assessed.
Meanwhile, a torchlight procession was held in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand on 5 January, by the residents of Joshimath to demand immediate action from Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami.
In response, CM Dhami ensured the citizens that their safety is the government's priority.
However, experts are demanding that a more comprehensive investigation take place in regards to the role of the NTPC Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project and the Helang-Marwari bypass in Joshimath's sinking.
The NTPC hydropower project has been under construction for the last 16 years.
I am very much convinced that the Joshimath caving incident is caused by the hydro power project which has been operational in building the tunnel and was the major cause of concern for the residents. It has shown that water which has gushed out is from a fractured zone which has been punctured by the tunnel that has been leading to the devastating situation that we are in today.Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business
Abhishek Tripathi, the Chamoli district magistrate, has written a letter to NTPC and Hindustan Ltd., requesting that they prepare approximately 2,000 prefabricated tents as temporary shelter for those displaced due to cracks in the buildings.
Joshimath is an important town ecologically, culturally and strategically. The town is considered the 'gateway' to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib and a popular spot for people on pilgrimage.
Chamoli district is also home to the UNESCO world heritage sight, the Valley of Flowers, and a popular skiing destination, Auli.
The town is situated near the Indo-China border, and also hosts an army base camp due to its strategic significance.
This has lead to an influx of tourists visiting Joshimath year round. The town has expanded exponentially over time, with warnings regarding its unstable foundations unheeded, and rampant construction ongoing.
Now when disaster has struck, one of the biggest concerns is how will people continue living in a city where buildings could cave at any moment?
Joshimath has a population of 25,000 people, with a constant flow of tourists and pilgrims. It consists of of residential colonies, commercial properties and hotels.
“There has been a manifold increase in the tourist influx over the years. Roughly counting, the state used to host around 6 lakh tourists per year which has now increased to over 15 lakhs. With this, there has been an increase in vehicular pollution, river pollution, construction activities, and commercialization."Atul Satti, a local environmental activist.
What Lies Ahead?
Experts say that people from Joshimath will have to be completely evacuated from Joshimath in the future, that there is no other way out.
And this is the story of several precariously situated cities and villages across Uttarakhand.
Several villages in Chamoli and nearby districts like Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh have been raising the same demands for relocation and rehabilitation for a very long time.
Raini in Chamoli district is one such village, located on the banks at the confluence of the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga rivers. In Feburary 2021, Raini Village suffered through a flash flood event caused by a glacial lake outburst when a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke away.
The flash flood severely damaged the village and caused the already growing cracks in the ground to widen considerably.
Frequent landslides and falling boulders have also contributed to the development of significant cracks in houses in Johsimath. Reports have said that the state government issued tents and warnings to relocate to safe places.
But where will this rehabilitation happen? And how these relocated people find viable livelihoods in these places continues to be a source of concern.
The NTPC hydropower project and the Helang-Marwari bypass, both of which are currently under construction, have been a thorn in the side of people living in Joshimath.
The method of construction of The Helang-Marwari bypass – blasting the hillside – does not heed the warnings given regarding the instability of the region.
Residents also blame the NTPC Tapovan-Vishnuga 520 MW hydropower project, which caused a flashflood in the area in 2021.
The tunnel had water seepage due to a punctured aquifer which led to water sources drying up in Joshimath. The projects have currently been halted in light of the danger, however, it is uncertain how long this hiatus will continue for.
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