The people of Joshimath town of Uttarakhand are out on the streets in this winter chill looking for help in the face of a disaster. Many buildings in the town have been developing cracks. There are also reports that this pristine town located at a height of 6000 feet above the sea level is “sinking”.

The developments in the recent past have put a big question mark over the model of development being shoved down the highly vulnerable hills. The situation has come to a point where the experts are saying that the priority at this point has to be evacuation while science and studies can follow later. Meanwhile, people are seething in anger over the approach of the state government towards their battle for survival.

According to the information available 561 buildings that have developed cracks, have been identified by the administration till now. Meanwhile, 38 families have been shifted to safer locations. Two hotels have been asked to suspend operations by the administration.

The agitated people of the town blocked the Badrinath highway on Thursday protesting the ‘inaction’ of the state government towards their plight pointing out that the government response has been disappointing towards the havoc and despair. There was a massive torchlight procession in the town the previous evening.

People are particularly pointing toward the digging of a tunnel for Tapovan Vishnugad hydro project and the digging on the Helang-Marwadi by-pass road being primarily responsible for the sinking of the town and the ever developing cracks in the buildings.

The work on these projects has been stalled by the administration along with putting a halt to all the construction activity in the municipal limits.

The people are particularly annoyed with the ‘dismissive’ attitude shown by the Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami towards a delegation that had recently gone to apprise him on the situation. Social activist Indresh Maikhuri said, “He did not even ask the delegation to sit down and was through with the audience in around 40 seconds.”

A senior geologist Dr SP Sati told The Citizen that Joshimath has been historically fragile and vulnerable. “It stands on landslide material. In 1976 the Mishra Committee formed by the then Uttar Pradesh government had concluded that Joshimath stands on a landslide zone and is sinking. It had come out with some important conclusions and suggestions for the planners.

“Primary among these were that no construction be promoted there. It was found that there was huge disturbance on the slope and the borders were erratic. It was particularly suggested that no blasting activity be undertaken there.

“But all these warnings and suggestions have been violated over the last 50 years. The governments never considered the suggestions. Four to five storey structures were allowed to come up as a part of huge construction activity.”

Sati along with two other experts Naveen Juyal and Shubhra Sharma had undertaken a survey of the area on the request of the concerned citizens of the town this summer and had found that apart from the rampant construction, the digging of tunnels and roads along with there being no proper drainage system were a major cause of worry for the sinking town. “It is a bit too late now. The priority has to be evacuation lest there be a major disaster. Science can wait,” he said.

Even other experts and academics have been pointing towards the potential disaster emanating from the sanctioning of hydroelectric projects in the area. Referring to the Vishnugad Project, they have been stating that the head race tunnel traverses through the geologically fragile area below Joshimath.

It has been stated that geological investigations related to the project were marked by the investigators failing to take cognisance of the earlier investigations carried out in the area and did nothing to establish the depth of overburden all through the tunnel alignment.

Atul Sati of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti disclosed, “Landslides have been taking place in Joshimath for more than a year due to which hundreds of houses have developed cracks affecting thousands of people. Their homes are being destroyed and they are on the road after being uprooted from the homes built over years. Despite the issue being aired from various corners, the attitude of the government and the administration is astonishing.”

He said that hundreds of houses, hospitals, army buildings, temples and roads in this town located in Chamoli district are sinking with the intensity increasing with regularity. The phenomenon is being attributed to ‘uncontrolled short-sighted development’.

Sati said the public has been raising a hue and cry on the issue for more than a year while the government and the administration have been ‘mute spectators’. “The local administration did not survey the houses in spite of the people giving written to them several times. In the first week of December, after a lot of insistence, the municipality was asked to identify the number of people that would be affected in the event of a disaster. The number was put at 3000. This cruel heartless attitude of waiting for a disaster instead of taking preventive measures is very unfortunate,” he said.

The Samiti has appealed to the people of the state to help the residents of Joshimath in putting pressure on the government to save a historical cultural tourist town which is important from a strategic point of view as well as being the last town on the border.

Some weeks ago Maikhuri and Atul Sati along with other activists Kamal Raturi and Ajay Bhatt had written to the secretary of state Disaster Management department saying, “The people are compelled to live in unsafe houses because they do not have any option. This might result in a major disaster someday.”

They had evacuation ahead of the harsh winters and snowfall besides constitution of a monitoring committee to see that the recommendations of various committees that have probed the phenomenon be implemented properly. They had laid particular emphasis on a proper drainage infrastructure with the help of the Army and IndoTibet Border Police. Sources disclosed that yet another team of scientists has now been sent to the sinking town for a fresh evaluation of the scenario in the town.

Slow, Unclear Response, Adding To Joshimath’s Agony

Anti-people projects have been promoted as 'development' by various regimes over the last few decades. Just as the subsidence of Joshimath has taken centre stage with thousands facing displacement, there are reports coming from innumerable towns and villages where people are expressing fear of falling prey to disaster. They say the impending disaster is a result of inaction by the authorities, or processes induced by human and natural activities.

In the last two decades there have been reports in the local media from places like Munshiyari, Karnaprayag, Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Dharchula, Nainital and even Landour in Mussourie. These are places that cover just the state of Uttarakhand. There have been similar reports about sinking roads in Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh while the situation with regards to Kinnaur and districts being covered under road widening projects is well known.

“There is no district or town in the hills that has been spared. We have been hearing of the plans to relocate people residing in 465 villages of the state for several years now. It is a sad state of affairs. “With the people demanding roads to the villages that are built in an unscientific manner using blasting, it has been a recipe for disaster. The contractors resort to blasting to save money that would go as payments to labour if done in a scientific manner. Add to that the threats coming from the network of hydroelectric projects that are based on tunnelling of rivers of which Joshimath is the latest example.

“Then you have ambitious plans like the all weather road on Char Dham circuit and the 126 km long railway track from Rishikesh to Karnaprayag,” explained SMA Kazmi who has been chronicling the developments in Uttarakhand right from the time it attained statehood. “It has to be kept in mind that the Himalayas are young mountains that are still growing. Even in a hypothetical scenario of there being no human settlement or activity there would still be landslides. And here you have so many man-made disasters being created with impunity,” he added.

Adding on to Kazmi’s viewpoint, social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri pointed out, “It is not that issues have cropped up in towns and villages all of a sudden. They have been there for years and people have been raising them. The way governments respond to the genuine concerns of the people is well known. “A case in point is Karnaprayag that has been raised by the people for more than two years. Under fresh pressure, the administration has once again started a survey of the area.”

A group of concerned citizens including Maikhuri, Arvind Chauhan of Parivartan Youth Club, former president of Karnaprayag municipality Subhash Gairola and Bhuvan Nautiyal of Nanda Devi Rajjat Samiti along with several others have submitted a fresh memorandum to the Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami through the local administration pointing at the emerging scenario in various localities of Karnaprayag due to land subsidence and soil erosion. They have pointed out that cracks are also appearing in houses and are increasing continuously. The people are forced to live in the shadow of fear. They have cited cutting done at localities including Bahuguna Nagar and Rajnagar. The memorandum states that the administration was kept informed in the past as well but no concrete action was taken to rescue the people in distress from this crisis.

“We demand that a time-bound geological survey should be conducted immediately of various parts of Karnaprayag city which are facing land subsidence and erosion. Remedial measures should be initiated without delay in the areas where treatment is possible. Proper arrangements should be made for immediate rehabilitation of the people. If temporary displacement is to be done then proper arrangements should be made for the same,” the memorandum says. It has also been demanded that measures be taken to prevent landslides in the Ida Badhani area. Meanwhile, the people of Joshimath are under tremendous stress in the face of ‘slow and unclear response’ to their agony.

On Wednesday evening, Chief Minister Dhami announced that those affected by the landslide in Joshimath will be given compensation at the market rate. He said that an interim assistance of Rs 1.5 lakh is being given to the affected families on an immediate basis and a total of Rs 45 crores as immediate assistance is being given to three thousand families. Dhami has appealed to the people not to pay attention to the rumours of demolition of houses in the affected area of Joshimath. He stated that no action is being taken to demolish the houses.

A state government spokesperson said that an advance amount of Rs 1 lakh has been given to the affected landowners and families in the affected area before the permanent settlement displacement policy is prepared. An amount of Rs 50,000 has been given in the form of non-adjustable one-time special grant for transportation of goods and immediate needs of their buildings. This amount was released by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Authority. Dhami has directed Chief Secretary S. S. Sandhu not to demolish the houses with cracks in the affected area unless it is unavoidable.

However, sources on the ground point out that it was reports that created panic about demolition of buildings leading to people sitting in protest in close proximity to two hotels leaning against each other as they feared that the fall of hotels would damage several residential structures. Further, there was information spread on Tuesday about the presence of the team in town that had recently demolished twin towers in Noida amid a lot of media hype. “You have to understand the trauma of the people who are facing displacement. They cannot see their houses being reduced to rubble for which they have taken so many pains. You have to take them into confidence,” said Maikhuri.

The situation in Joshimath was reviewed at a meeting of the National Crisis Management Committee on Tuesday that was chaired by cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba. The Cabinet Secretary stressed that immediate priority should be complete and safe evacuation of all the residents in the affected zone. Priority may be accorded to demolition of vulnerable structures in a safe manner.

All the studies and investigations, viz. geotechnical, geophysical and hydrological, should be completed in a coordinated and time bound manner. The Cabinet Secretary assured the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand that all central agencies will continue to be available for necessary assistance. Meanwhile, Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh while speaking at a Joint Indo-UK Academic Workshop in Delhi on Tuesday stressed upon the need to devise mitigation strategies to minimise human consequences in natural disasters.

The UK Delegation was led by Deputy British High Commissioner to India Christina Scott. He underlined that there is a critical need for fundamental research on the physical processes that lead to failure of the brittle layers beneath the crust and sub-crust, to develop low-cost solutions to identify and quantify the geo-hazards over the vast regions and devise mitigation strategies that are appropriate to widely varying – and rapidly evolving – political, social, and economic contexts. He added that scientific understanding of the processes behind disasters has grown immensely over the past 50 years and there is a need for strengthening further international collaborations like the Indo-UK initiative to fight such disasters in future. Scott in her remarks said that building resilience to geo-hazards presents a major challenge that requires collaborative international action by researchers, policymakers, governments, private sectors, and civil societies.

Meanwhile, residents in Joshimath continue their protests. Atul Sati of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti has been stating time and again that the people are not sitting on a dharna against the government. They just want a solution to their genuine problem as they face displacement. He pointed out in a couple of his social media addresses, “The dharna is helpful in a different way as people come and sit together sharing their problems and sorrows. During this time their attention is diverted from the gloomy scenario confronting them at home.

“Nobody is in a position to bring the very large number of mental health professionals to address the trauma these people are undergoing. The songs these people sing here with support pouring in from different villages actually help calm them.” Many people point out the hypothetical scenario if all these people in extreme distress and mental trauma start hitting the streets and the problems it would create.

There is more anger among the people on the attempts being made through pliable media to convey that the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) Limited, which is executing the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro power project, is not responsible for the present crisis. The people are holding the tunnel being dug as a part of this project, along with the excavation for the Helang-Marwadi bypass road, responsible for the acceleration in the sinking of the town. What is instead being propagated is that the problem in Joshimath is very old while the project started only a few years ago. There have also been attempts to propagate that it is unplanned and unabated construction that is largely responsible. This is construed as holding the people responsible for the crisis. “If that is the case what are your municipalities, town and country planning department and urban development ministry doing across the state from where reports similar to that of Joshimath are being reported regularly,” retorted Maikhuri.