Fear and foreboding in Joshimath

The first thing that Neelam Bhujwan does every morning is to open a window of her two-room rented accommodation to check on a yellow single-storey house barely 300 metres away on the same hill, a little down the slope. Over the course of the day, she reckons that she visits the house more than 50 times, sometimes just to check if the doors are locked or if any animal has entered. A widow with two teenage sons, she says she can feel the house tilting a little more, every passing day.

“That was the house I came to when I got married 23 years ago,” says Bhujwan, tears streaming down her face. “It was a single room then. My husband and I built it up, spent all our savings on it. Now I see it sinking every day.” The 47-year-old Anganwadi worker has rented a place nearby, so she can keep a watch: “Who knows when it will turn into ruins, like many homes in Joshimath.”

The anxiety envelopes all of Joshimath, a pilgrimage town in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district with a population of around 22,000 people and with approximate 3,800 large and small residential structures. Many of these bear cracks on the walls and floors, and have been declared unsafe. Cracks in roads and pathways have further heightened apprehensions about the future. Cracks in some houses had been appearing previously over the years, and residents would repair their homes at regular intervals. The situation worsened since 2021, and over the past months the cracks have grown wider and deeper, raising concerns about safety.

Stories of loss

Scenes of bewilderment play out across the town. Sarjeet Singh in the Kothilagarh locality was not able to spend even a day in his house. “We had built this house in 2018-19 but couldn’t shift due to family issues,” he explains. “We were yet to have the house-warming when one day (in February 2021), my wife noticed a crack on the wall of the bedroom. The next day it became wider. Within a week, the wall was fractured from bottom to the top. By August 2022, almost every room was damaged.” Singh had taken a loan to build the three-room house; now most of the big and small houses in the neighbourhood lie damaged and abandoned.

Jagdish Chaudhary, who runs a grocery store 100 m away, says at least 13 families in his neighbourhood have left their homes in the last month. “This town, which used to be full of happy faces, now looks gloomy. No one talks to each other anymore. They all have their own sorrows,” he says.

Editorial | Reckless spree: On Joshimath sinking

Sunaina Saklani, a 22-year-old graduate whose house in Sunil village within the town limits is badly ‘damaged’, struggles to maintain her composure while talking to her ailing mother, who is under treatment for a tumour in a hospital in Dehradun. “We are fine and our house is fine too,” she tells her mother, misleadingly. She and her sister, Nikita, spend most of their time in their dilapidated, and damaged home. The family are unhappy with the make-shift living arrangements at the rehabilitation centre organised by the district administration. “They have placed men and women together,” says Nikita. “We stay here in the damaged home the entire day and just go to the rehab centre to sleep.”

She recounts: “On the night of January 2, a huge piece of plaster fell on my head. I ran out and saw that the terrace was cracking. I could hear the noise of plaster getting ruptured. In the morning, there was space between walls at the corners.” They spent the night of January 3 out in the winter chill — as have countless other residents in the area, afraid of staying inside damaged structures, but afraid of abandoning their homes.

The Uttarakhand government has so far rehabilitated 185 families in temporary rehabilitation centres made by converting schools, community centres and hotels. The government claims to have space to house over 3,000 people in these centres. Apart from accommodation, the government is also providing cooked food and rations.

Devendra Singh Rawat, 67, who resided with seven other family members in a five-room house in the Singhdar area, had to move to a single room in a Nagar Palika (organised for him the district administration). He has been calling his relatives in Dehradun to check if they can help find jobs for his sons. “I am retired from the Sashastra Seema Bal. My son was working in a hotel here. Another was a salesperson in a shop. All of us are jobless and the only asset we had, our house, is damaged. The government has announced relief of ₹1.5 lakh, but how long will that sustain us?,” he worries.

Satishwari Shah, 65, has had crying fits since the moment her house, a small building with four rooms, was marked as dangerous. Seema, her daughter-in-law, is trying to pack as much as she can in bags that the family has, unable to decide what to take and what to leave behind.

Chandra Vallabh Pandey, whose house is also marked with a ‘cross’ by the administration, is not ready to leave his home. “How can I leave my deity? I have been worshipping her since birth,” he says. The statue of the deity installed in his house is centuries old, he adds, and was brought by his great-grandfather.

A forest guard who was posted in Pipalkothi, 35 km from Joshimath, has arrived at the office of Additional District Magistrate. “My family lives here and my house is also damaged,” he tells the official. “What if something happens to my wife and children? Sir, I haven’t slept since a week. I am losing my mental balance.” The officials immediately ordered his transfer and suggested that he meet a doctor.

Neelam Bhujwan, the widow anganwadi worker whose house was damaged due to land subsidence.

Neelam Bhujwan, the widow anganwadi worker whose house was damaged due to land subsidence.
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Every second person in Joshimath looks worried, dark circles under the eyes, unruly hair, unwashed. Almost every household sends one person to participate in the protests taking place at the tehsil office since December 24. In the morning, men participate, and in the afternoon, women mark attendance.

“Be safe but keep fighting,” Atul Sati, convener of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (JBSS), tells the people during the protest as many of them are not ready to vacate their homes.

“A person puts all his earnings and savings in building their home. I don’t know how to console them but we all know that it took years for the government to wake up to important issues. We can’t let them sleep when all they have done is the bare minimum,” says Sati.

Akshay and Vikas, who run a tempo service, claim to have ferried belongings of eight-nine families to different locations in the last 24 hours. “People just cry. They try to put in as much as they can but much is left behind,” says Akshay.

Across Joshimath town, in every shop, people discuss the Mishra Committee report, how NTPC Limited has destroyed the town, and how the government ignored all warnings.

A man pastes a notice against the NTPC on a signboard as residents protest the Tapovan-Vishnugad power project in the landslide-hit Joshimath town of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on January 13, 2023.

A man pastes a notice against the NTPC on a signboard as residents protest the Tapovan-Vishnugad power project in the landslide-hit Joshimath town of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on January 13, 2023.
| Photo Credit:

“My house witnessed its first crack in 2021, soon after the Raini disaster,” says Bhuvan Chandra, who lives in Gandhi Nagar. In February 2021, an avalanche at the Nanda Devi glacier nearby caused extensive damage at the site of the Rishiganga and Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric power project, causing the death of at least 200 persons, many of whom have been working on the site. “I informed the administration over 10 times in the last two years,” he recalls. “No one paid heed. When the damage happened in big hotels and homes belonging to rich people, the administration woke up from its slumber.”

Sandeep Singh, who returned to Joshimath after post-graduate studies at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies of Dehradun to start a sweets shop, points to the irony that his native town may be sinking on account of hydro-power projects, but itself never has sufficient electricity supply.

The dust that won’t settle

Joshimath, situated 6,000 m above sea level in Chamoli district, also bears the weight of around 400 commercial establishments in the form of hotels, shops and offices of tour and trekking groups. There are huge establishments of the Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and NTPC Limited and Jaiprakash Power Ventures Ltd (JPVL) hydropower projects.

“Construction mushroomed here in the last two decades,” says Sati of the JBSS, arguing that the current situation could have been averted had the government paid attention to the warnings. “We alerted the government when the Raini disaster took place. It fell on deaf ears.”

The magnitude of the damage in Joshimath can be gauged from the fact that 760 houses in the town have developed deep cracks. Over 147 among them are totally unfit to be inhabited (data till January 13). The district administration is still reviewing the status of more than half the houses in Joshimath. Residents say not a single house in this hill town is without cracks.

Roads in Joshimath show the disaster unfolding, from anthropogenic as well as natural causes. After every few hundred metres, the motorable road is cracked. At some patches, the cracks are a foot wide. There are fractures on trekking paths too.

Though the government halted the work of the NTPC and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) projects on January 4, big JCBs can be spotted farther away working in the hills of Uttarakhand. At some places, a patch of road destroyed after a minor or a major landslide is being cleared; at several other locations, the widening of roads is under way.

In practically every township, the sound of drilling machines and construction dust breaks the quiet of the Himalayan environs. “Hills just don’t look like hills. The trees are covered with dust. There is noise all the time,” says Vidushi Nautiyal, a resident of Joshimath.

The crossroads of place and time

Joshimath is prominent on the Himalayan pilgrimage map as the gateway to the Badrinath shrine, the most visited temple of the Char Dham Yatra. It is the winter seat of Lord Badri, when the main temple is snowbound. The ‘Math’ (monastery) of Adi Shankaracharya, which too has witnessed cracks due to subsidence, is located here. The town is also the doorway to the important Sikh gurdwara, Hemkund Sahib. Joshimath is on the way for visitors to the Valley of Flowers national park. By one estimate, over 50 lakh people visited Joshimath for the Char Dham Yatra and leisure trips in 2022.

In 2016, the Central government started the ₹9,474 crore Char Dham road-widening project, with the aim of improving the connectivity for the Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri temples in Uttarakhand. To assess and check the environmental damage, the Supreme Court formed a High-Powered Committee headed by environmentalist Ravi Chopra. Chopra subsequently resigned in January 2022, citing what he saw as “the desecration” of the Himalayas.

Warnings about ‘sustainable’ development in Uttarakhand have been issued periodically for more than five decades — all in vain.

The first such warning came from an 18-member committee formed by the Uttar Pradesh government in 1976, six years after the devastating Alaknanda flood of 1970. (Uttarakhand was part of U.P. till 2000.) It was led by the then Garhwal Commissioner, M.C. Mishra. His report maintained that Joshimath was a landslide-affected area, and hence it was not recommended that a township be built here. It recommended that no boulders be removed either by digging or blasting, plantation be done on hill slopes and no trees cut, and that there be no mining within a radius of 5 km. It noted that poor drainage facilities led to landslides, and the government must plan for a proper drainage and sewage system.

“Nothing happened in the last 46 years,” says geologist Navin Juyal, a member of the High-Powered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court on the Char Dham road-widening project.

And as recently as August 2022, the Uttarakhand government had asked its disaster management department to assess the situation of Joshimath. In August 2022, a team led by Piyush Rautela, Executive Director of the State Disaster Management Authority, conducted a survey of Joshimath. Thereafter, he submitted a report to the government in November. “We believe that due to erosion in the Alaknanda river bank below Joshimath, water is getting absorbed in the ground because of lack of sewage and drainage systems. This was causing subsidence,” he told The Hindu.

After the report, the government ordered a tender to plan for a sewage system in Joshimath. But it was too late, says Sati.

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