Joshimath The wage of sin

  • 0

Joshimath The wage of sin

Sunday, 15 January 2023 | Biswajeet Banerjee

Joshimath The wage of sin

The Joshimath town, nestled at an altitude of 1890 metres, has slowly turned into a ghost city after cracks appeared in over 700 houses due to land subsidence, forcing the administration to shift people to safer places and stop all construction work going around the region with immediate effect, writes Biswajeet Banerjee


It was May last year when Meera Rawat, a resident of the Lower Bazaar ward of the Joshimath while working in the kitchen suddenly heard a sound as if water was flowing underneath the floor of the house. Startled, Meera called her neighbours. They too confirmed the gurgling sound of flowing water.

“That day I had a premonition that something bad would happen in our town of Joshimath. In September, I witnessed a small crack in the floor of the house. In December the crack widened and on December 27 last year we vacated the house,” Meera said.

The fear in her voice was still palpable. She, along with her husband and three children have shifted to her brother’s house in Ukhimath. “It seems to be a cursed town. Badrivishalji is angry with us. Hamein paap ki saza mili hai (we have been punished for our sins),” she told this reporter.

Many other residents of the locality have vacated their houses and shifted to relief camps set up in government buildings. Baby Devi has shifted her two children to her relatives’ house and the couple is staying in a school compound.

“We used our savings to build our house and now we have to stay here … in a camp. There are no cracks in our house, but there is a threat to our house from a multi-story hotel in our neighborhood that has tilted to one side because of a landslide. Officials say that this hotel building might collapse on our house and so we have been asked to move to this camp,” she said.

There is a sense of despondency in the city, which was the gateway to famous of pilgrimage sites Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib. This is also the entry point to the Valley of Flowers and is home to Auli – the ropeway destination of skiers who come from across the globe to participate in the skiing competition. Many popular Himalayan treks, too, start from the town.

The Joshimath town, nestled at an altitude of 1890 metres, has slowly turned into a ghost city after cracks appeared in over 700 houses due to land subsidence, forcing the administration to shift people to safer places and stop all construction work going around the region with immediate effect. Last week, a temple collapsed in Singhdhar, triggering panic among the residents. No injury was reported as the temple area was vacated a day earlier.

District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana has sent a detailed report of the Joshimath landslide to the chief minister's secretary. “A total of 608 buildings in the city have developed cracks. The residents of these buildings have been shifted to the safer areas,” Khurana said.

The government will pay Rs 4,000 per month for six months to those rendered homeless due to the Joshimath landslide.

The official said land subsidence had been going on for more than a year but the problem aggravated over the past fortnight.

Land subsidence refers to the vertical sinking of land in a region. It consists of the earth’s surface moving downwards vertically and involves little or no movement horizontally. Reasons can be both human and natural.

Secretary, Department of Disaster Management, Uttarakhand, Ranjit Sinha, said that the cause of the landslide in Joshimath town was being investigated. “Cracks in houses are a matter of concern. Primarily it seems that because of the faulty drainage system, water has seeped in under the base of the houses which has led to the sinking of houses,” he said.

He said all construction activities related to mega projects like the Chardham all-weather road, Auli ropeways, and the NTPC’s hydel project had been stopped till further orders.


 Why it happened

Joshimath’s attraction for pilgrims and tourists led to  unregulated expansion of the city. According to a study by Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA), the town is located in an area prone to landslides and the first instance of subsidence in it was reported way back in the 1976 Mishra Commission report. The commission warned that construction by removing boulders and blasting the hillside would lead to severe environmental damage in the region.

The USDMA study said that the perennial streams, appreciable snow in the upper reaches, and highly weathered gneissic rocks with low cohesive characteristics made the area prone to landslides.

Piyush Rautela, Executive Director of USDMA, said that the area was highly vulnerable to sinking because the town rested on a silty-sandy matrix and schistose rocks were embedded in it. This makes the region susceptible to rain and flooding.

He said folds of June 2013 followed by one in 2021 had an adverse impact on this region. The landslide zone was further weakened when Joshimath recorded 190 mm of rainfall in 24 hours on October 17, 2021.

Hemant Dhyani, environmentalist and member of the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee on the Chardham Project, said the government had sanctioned many hydropower projects despite knowing the vulnerability of the region. These projects must be stopped immediately, he said.


 Man-made disaster

Subsidence was reported in Joshimath for the first time in 1975 when it was a small town with a population of around 400 families and around 30 shops – the majority of them kutcha structures built across the main highway connecting the town with the Badrinath. A commission was set up by the then government under the chairmanship of Commissioner of Garhwal MC Mishra to probe the matter. In his report in 1976, Mishra highlighted a serious issue that might endanger life and property. He clarified in his report that Joshimath is situated on the site of an ancient landslide.

The Mishra Committee report highlighted that the town's geography is the main factor contributing to Joshimath's sinking. His report said that the landslide debris, on which the city was built, had a low bearing capacity and could not support a high rate of construction. The report even highlighted that no big construction should be allowed in the area “without any scientific study”.

This report was thrown into the lumber room and the government allowed the construction of hydroelectric projects and the widening of the National Highway, making the slopes more unstable.

The second warning was in 2009 when two villages – Jugju and the Juaguad– started sinking. The villagers complained that this was because of the 171 MW Lata-Tapovan hydroelectric power project. The villagers in December 2013 started protests against the National Thermal Power Corporation project. They said the tunnel of the NTPC passed under the mountain on which the Jugju and the Juaguad villages were situated. The locals complained that their villages were sinking owing to the work on the tunnel and the regular blasts exacerbated the condition.

The villagers then also objected to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report – prepared for getting clearance for the project – saying that it was based on false data.

The construction of the Tapovan-Vishnugad project started in 2006 and today the residents blame this project for the sinking of Joshimath. A tunnel was dug for the hydropower plant under Joshimath town. They say a private company was preferred by the NTPC over the Geological Survey of India, for undertaking geological investigations related to the project. “These investigations failed to take cognizance of the earlier geological investigations carried out in the area and did nothing to establish the depth of overburden all through the tunnel alignment”, a geologist, MPS Bisht, said.

The NTPC has, however, refuted the claim saying the tunnel is being carved using a tunnel boring machine (TRM) and that its construction involves no underground blasting.

On January 5, the company issued a statement: “NTPC is being held responsible for the land subsidence problem in Joshimath. In this regard, it is clarified that the tunnel built by NTPC doesn’t pass under Joshimath. The tunnel is dug by a tunnel boring machine and no blasting is being carried out presently.”

The NTPC project was scheduled to be commissioned in 2012-2013 but was delayed by a decade.

Then there is the Helang bypass, the highway whose construction is underway at the town’s foothill around 13 km away from Joshimath. This bypass is meant to shorten the distance to Badrinath by 30 km. Heavy machines are used to carve out four-lane highways.

Experts advise that all construction and hydroelectric projects in the area be stopped immediately. One of the most important aspects that require investigation and development, is drainage planning. As more and more waste seeps into the soil, loosening it from within, the city is suffering from poor drainage and sewer management. The state government has requested that the Irrigation Department look into the situation and develop a new plan for the drainage system.

As people suffer they have taken to social media to express their anguish. “I see the death of my town. Even God is not happy with us, disaster is waiting to happen,” Sudhakar Sauti, a resident of the region, wrote in his Facebook page.

Sanjay Chauhan wrote an emotional note in Hindi on his FB page titled: “I am Joshimath”.

He wrote: “Today, I am in tears. Landslides have taken away the happiness of my city. A strange emptiness engulfs the city as my people are crying. After spending their lifetime's hard-earned money in the construction of their homes, today they are living in relief camps. The residents of my city are now apprehensive about their future. I pray to Lord Badrivishal to save this city of mine.”

 (The writer of Chief of Bureau of The Pioneer, Lucknow)

Sunday Edition

Robots & Rituals

26 March 2023 | AP | Agenda


20 March 2023 | Pioneer | Agenda

Rare diseases: No longer rare

12 March 2023 | Archana Jyoti | Agenda

Health Briefs

12 March 2023 | Agencies | Agenda

Shiva offers lesson in Art of Living

12 March 2023 | Bharat Bhushan Padmadeo | Agenda