It is an atmosphere of anxiety, uncertainty and unrest that prevails among the residents of Joshimath even as they face harsh winter conditions while continuing with their protest for a decent compensation and rehabilitation. With more and more buildings developing cracks and houses being marked as unsafe, the people continue to brace the trauma of displacement facing them.

Even as the state government claims that it is making all possible arrangements for the Joshimath affected people and that Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami is closely monitoring the exercise, the locals are upset at the slow pace of assistance being extended.

The people have chosen the occasion of Republic Day to air their demands with regards to the constitutional guarantees of Right to Life, livelihood and employment. They have planned a Tiranga Yatra in the town on January 26. This will be followed by a protest in the town, by the people coming from the adjoining rural areas on January 27.

The government claims to have made arrangements for the members of the disaster affected families to stay in relief camps apart from hotels where heaters, blowers etc. have been provided to protect them from the bitter cold. Secretary Disaster Management, Dr. Ranjit Kumar Sinha said on Monday that Rs 3.45 crore has been distributed to 261 affected families in Joshimath as advance relief.

Sources on the ground say that there are instances of around 15 people being lodged in a single hall with women occupying one corner, some of them with barely three month old toddlers and men occupying the other corner.

Braving the snowfall on Saturday, and the subsequent chilly weather conditions the people have continued with their dharna at the tehsil premises where people from every ward are taking turns on daily basis to participate.

“There is a lot of unrest as these people are unsure where they will be rehabilitated and resettled. Seeing red tapes being put on houses rendering them unusable adds to their anxiety. The people do not want to leave the area, their source of livelihood and employment. They want to be rehabilitated in a safe zone close by,” pointed out social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri.

The sentiment can be gauged by a resolution passed and signed by more than 200 women of a ward that had participated in the dharna on Sunday where they clearly said they want the rehabilitation done nearby at the places identified by the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.

It is being demanded by the locals as well as the Samiti that the rehabilitation be carried out in accordance with the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 2007. Maikhuri said that it is a broad based policy that takes care of the interests of even segments like the non agriculture labour.

The policy mentions, “There is an imperative need to recognise rehabilitation and resettlement issues as intrinsic to the development process formulated with the active participation of the affected persons, rather than as externally-imposed requirements. Additional benefits beyond monetary compensation have to be provided to the families affected adversely by involuntary displacement.

“The plight of those who do not have legal or recognized rights over the land on which they are critically dependent for their subsistence is even worse. This calls for a broader concerted effort on the part of the planners to include in the displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement process framework not only those who directly lose land and other assets but also those who are affected by such acquisition of assets.

“The displacement process often poses problems that make it difficult for the affected persons to continue their earlier livelihood activities after resettlement. This requires a careful assessment of the economic disadvantages and social impact of displacement. There must also be a holistic effort aimed at improving the all round living standards of the affected people.”

The policy defines its objectives as to minimise displacement and to promote,' as far as possible, non-displacing or least-displacing alternatives. It aims at ensuring adequate rehabilitation packages and expeditious implementation of the rehabilitation process with the active participation of the affected families besides taking special care for protecting the rights of the weaker sections of society.

It further calls for providing a better standard of living, making concerted efforts for providing sustainable income to the affected families and to integrate rehabilitation concerns into the development planning and implementation process.

Uttarakhand was reportedly the first state to come out with a policy to identify villages at risk of natural disasters and relocate the residents to safer locations. In 2021 the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority had come out with a list of 465 villages where people had to be relocated. The number subsequently went up to 484 villages.

Sources say that the rehabilitation efforts under the policy have been dismal. As Maikhuri said, “The implementation of the inadequate policy has been so pathetic that the authorities are not even talking about it in the context of Joshimath.”

There were reports in 2021 of Uttarakhand government planning to bring out a new disaster management and rehabilitation policy that would focus on quick rehabilitation of disaster affected families.

According to S.M.A Kazmi who has been documenting the social and political developments in the state right from the time of its inception, “The approach to rehabilitation has always been found wanting in disaster after disaster that the state has witnessed. An exception can be the Tehri dam oustees but there too the people have complained of an inadequate response in the land subsidence recorded in some areas later. The approach is that of fire fighting instead of a sustainable long term solution. It is just a piecemeal exercise.”

Kazmi has covered several disasters starting with the Chamoli earthquake of 1999. Another pertinent point that he highlighted in a conversation with this reporter was, “Science has gone for a six and it is the whims and fancies of the political class that take precedence in the context of so-called development projects. On many occasions even the scientific institutions go with the government as it is the careers and future of people at stake.”

Dharchula legislator Harish Dhami who has been raising the issue of land subsidence and resulting disasters in his area told The Citizen, “It is time the issue is addressed in all seriousness. I have been suggesting that the government come up with a land bank at safer locations near different vulnerable places where health, education and other facilities are developed so that people can be instantly rehabilitated at such places in an emergent situation. You have to keep in mind that the issue of migration also needs to be addressed in the hills of Uttarakhand that are important from a strategic point of view where national security is concerned.”

He added that a large-scale treatment exercise also needs to be taken up in areas facing land subsidence. “Except for Dharchula proper, this exercise remains to be undertaken in several villages and patches that I have been drawing attention to for a long time now,” he added.

Dhami had undertaken a day-long fast last week to protest the lackadaisical approach of the government towards the plight of the people in Dharchula-Munshiyari area of Pithoragarh district who have been suffering on account of disasters in villages like Aldhara, Khotila, Gorichhal, Jumma, Modi, Dausa, Talla Zauhar, Basbgarh, Naya Basti etc.

In a social media post he pointed out that in certain cases the people have been compelled to live in tents in extreme cold for years now. He rued the lack of decision making on the part of the government and has warned of an intensified agitation if the government fails to solve the problems of the people.

A delegation of the CPI (ML) visited Joshimath a couple of days back following which the state secretary of the party Raja Bahuguna said, “In this emergency, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi should directly intervene and coordinate the rescue operation in coordination with the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti,”

He also said that the full responsibility for Joshimath should be fixed by the central government. He pointed out, "Even after the Kedarnath disaster of 2013, there has been no change in the policies of the central and state government on development in Uttarakhand. Kedarnath has been turned into a concrete jungle.

“The destructive hydropower and the Char Dham (road widening) projects continue. Even during the construction of the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail route, reports of cracks are being received at many places. There is still time to prepare a new action plan to make the direction of development pro-people in the sensitive area of the central Himalayas, otherwise the danger of a big loss of life and property is inevitable in the coming times.”

Former chief minister Harish Rawat too has taken up the issue with Dhami twice.

Meanwhile, the Uttarakhand government has claimed that the construction work of prefabricated shelters has started in collaboration with Central Building Research Institute Roorkee on a piece of land near horticulture department premises in Joshimath.

Secretary, Disaster Management Dr Sinha said that prefabricated shelters will also come up at Dhak village in Chamoli where land is being levelled and water, sewage and power arrangements are being made. He further said that if necessary, the option of arranging accommodation for the oustees in the hostels of Bhararisain Vidhansabha have also been kept open.

According to the government, cracks have been noticed in 863 buildings and 278 families have been temporarily displaced in view of their security, till now. The number of displaced family members is 933.

On the other hand solidarity is pouring in for the people of the town from various corners of the country as well as the state. People are also coming forward to donate financially to help the residents in distress. There have been demonstrations in cities like Dehradun, Haldwani and Srinagar calling for proper rehabilitation of the people of Joshimath.