By the end of 2022, there had already been several reports of local protests about the “gradual sinking” of Joshimath, a small Himalayan mountain town in the northern State of Uttarakhand. They did not create any ripples in official circles. From then on, the situation only got rapidly worse.
Finally, the government’s apathy forced the residents of this temple town to take matters into their own hands. From organising roadshows every day to staging overnight dharnas, the beginning of 2023 in Joshimath was marked by an eruption of residents in protest. All of the demonstrations had one goal in common: “Save Joshimath” from sinking.
Joshimath, which has a population of about 25,000 and is situated in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal area, is a renowned hiking and pilgrimage destination. The town is built on a fragile mountain slope in a region that is already and provenly prone to landslides.
The Joshimath region, which spans 2.5 square kilometres, is home to some 3,900 residences and 400 commercial structures, according to information provided by the Chamoli district administration. Of these, some 195 houses were constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
So far, over 700 houses and several roads have developed cracks as the land beneath the town continues to gradually sink, and these numbers are increasing by the day. Yet, it is not as if the catastrophe that struck the holy town was unexpected. The last 14 months were filled with warning signs, and residents alerted the authorities repeatedly.
Atul Sati, the convenor of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Struggle to Save Joshimath Committee), told Frontline that residents had been complaining to the government for the past 14 months. Sati’s house too has developed cracks.
He said: “We brought it to the notice of the BJP government many times. We also gave them possible solutions to the problem. Not just that, we formed our own committee to assess the problem. We handed them the report but no action was taken.” For almost a year, the signs of the tragedy in the making were ignored.
After the administration ignored their complaints, the residents formed a committee of independent scientists to look into the situation and compile a report.
The Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti even offered the State government a number of alternatives—including creating a high-power State committee with representation from local stakeholders, a local coordination committee, and an immediate halt to heavy construction. “Our suggestions were rejected. People had no choice but to protest,” Sati said.
State of fear
It was in November 2021 that the first signs of sinking appeared. And some residents noticed cracks in their properties for the first time. This was when the first protest took place.
From January this year, panic began to build up among the residents. As many as 200 families have been evacuated, but those who are as yet unaffected also live in perpetual fear.
Kuldeep Bhandari, who owns a small homestay in Joshimath, greets visitors by telling them that there are no cracks in his homestay…“so far”.
NTPC plant in focus
As several experts have pointed out, it is the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric plant being built in the region by the state-owned NTPC that is clearly at the epicentre of this calamity.
The company has, however, issued statements denying its culpability. In a note to the Ministry of Power, it has stated that it is not responsible for the region’s sinking. The project tunnel that is being blamed is located one kilometre away from Joshimath town and at least one kilometre below ground level, NTPC said. The tunnel does not pass under Joshimath, and 8.5 km of the 12-km tunnel was dug with a boring machine and not by blasting. “NTPC is not responsible for the current devastation in Joshimath,” a release said.
But both residents and scientists attribute the sinking primarily to the dam construction, and public anger against NTPC has been mounting. “NTPC go back” posters can be seen on cars, scooters, and several buildings in the town.
The immense 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric power project is coming up on Dhauliganga river in Chamoli district, which is 12-15 km from Joshimath. About 70 per cent of the work has been completed despite the spate of mishaps it has encountered.
The first incident was in 2009, three years after the project began, when a tunnel boring machine struck an aquifer. The incidents continued until, in February 2021, the Uttarakhand flash flood occurred in which at least 200 people, many of them workers at the dam site, lost their lives. A portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off near Chamoli, resulting in an avalanche, a flash flood, and the destruction of hydropower installations along the Alaknanda river system. The flood also destroyed a 90 m RCC bridge on the Joshimath-Malari road, located directly downstream of the Rishi Ganga Hydel project and roughly 2 km upstream of the Tapovan project. The catastrophe was traced by experts to climate change, a process that has been frighteningly accelerated in this paraglacial region by the undeterred pace of dams and development projects.
In Joshimath, standing among homes and roads with zigzag cracks, local activists spoke of how the tunnel connecting the NTPC power plant to Joshimath town was damaged in 2009 itself, creating a reservoir that later caused the town’s ground to sink. According to the US Geological Survey, when a significant amount of groundwater is extracted, land subsidence (or sudden sinking of the earth’s surface) occurs.
The NTPC project was also referenced in a report by Dr M.P.S. Bisht, a geologist, and Piyoosh Rautela, currently Executive Director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, titled “Disaster looms large over Joshimath”. The research paper, which was published in May 2010 in the peer-reviewed journal Current Science, raised serious questions about NTPC’s power plant.
But it was only on January 5, several days after cracks began to appear in hundreds of houses and the matter became widely public, that the Uttarakhand government finally halted work on the projects, including NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad project and the Border Roads Organisation’s ongoing road-widening work.
In Uttarakhand, it is common to see bulldozers and other heavy machinery lying casually alongside roads and to hear the continuous racket of construction work. Over the years, disregarding expert advice, the government has undertaken a slew of big projects in the area, including 500 km of highway. Blasting and dynamiting the mountains are common occurrences in the State.
“When one project ends, another begins,” said Indresh Maikhuri, a social activist based in Chamoli district. He spoke of back-to-back hydroelectric power projects in Joshimath. “Since Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, several projects began that have harmed the environment immensely,” Maikhuri told Frontline.
When Uttarakhand was first formed, it was envisaged as “Urja Pradesh” or “power state” because of the high potential of its Himalayan rivers to produce hydropower. Besides this, as Maikhuri pointed out, Joshimath too has been heavily exploited. Being a gateway to popular religious pilgrimage sites, the government steadily built and widened roads, some becoming as wide as 33 feet, against the advice of even its own experts.
Some projects currently undertaken or proposed near Joshimath are Jhelum Tamak, Malari Jhelum, Lata Tapovan, Tapovan Vishnugad, and Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydroelectric projects; the Vishnuprayag dam project; the Rishi Ganga Power Project; and the Char Dham road between Helang and Marwari.
As Maikhuri pointed out, environmental laws have often been bypassed to approve these projects. “Even in the Char Dham road-widening project, the government evaded environmental impact assessment by breaking the project into 56 small stretches,” said Maikhuri.
As residents try to make sense of their lives in the chaos, more than one expert has pointed out that the fault lies squarely with India’s engineers, both in their education and in their professional practice. “Joshimath has been brought down by engineers. They have a skewed understanding of geology and geography,” said Vimlendu Jha, a Delhi-based environmentalist who has been working on the ecology of the Yamuna and the Himalaya for the last 23 years.
“In Joshimath, and various other ecologically fragile zones where haphazard development work has been undertaken, it seems project proponents and executioners ignore the local ecological situation, either not conducting a thorough environmental impact assessment, or ignoring findings or manipulating the findings.”
Jha said that it is critical that the geological and geographical context of a development project be taken into consideration. “It should be the starting point for any project. Designing inappropriate infrastructure has destroyed the Himalaya and other ecologically sensitive zones. Engineers are not taught enough about ecology, neither from the perspective and knowledge of pure science nor from the perspective of social science.”
In the light of this colossal failure, today scores of Joshimath’s residents are packing up their lives and moving out of their sinking homes. The government has set up multiple last-minute relief camps to accommodate them.
Natural or man-made tragedy?
Even as Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said in an address on January 11 at an ITBP base camp that the government was working in a sensitive manner to ensure that everyone was safe and relocated, his address painted the sinking of Joshimath as a natural tragedy.
It is, however, becoming increasingly clear from the field and from initial assessment reports that the NTPC project, government apathy, and the continued push given to massive development works have all played a big role in the disaster.
“Every year, tragedy strikes Uttarakhand, and this time it is unfortunately Joshimath. We hope we will sail through this,” Dhami said. He also announced that affected people would be provided with the best possible compensation for the loss of their houses. Residents, however, claim that the government is paying only a pittance.
Joshimath today is pockmarked with buildings that tilt crazily, with cracked walls and sinking floors. These are marked with a large red cross to signal that they are to be demolished.
Rajeshwari Devi, 70, and her husband Laxman Prasad Sati, 80, are among those whose homes have the red mark. Sati spoke to Frontline of how he had taken a big loan to build the family home. Their only son lives in Dehradun but he has been warned against coming to Joshimath.
The couple have no alternative but to evacuate their home, and just like hundreds of residents in this once serene town, they are waiting to receive compensation for the homes they are forced to leave behind. They will soon join the others staying in the hotels, schools, government buildings, and gurdwaras that have been turned into relief camps.
- Government apathy has forced Joshimath residents to organise protests.
- Joshimath is a renowned hiking and pilgrimage destination built on a fragile mountain slope in a landslide-prone region.
- Over 700 houses and several roads have developed cracks as the land beneath the town continues to sink.
- As many as 200 families have been evacuated.
- Hundreds are housed in hotels, schools, government buildings, and gurdwaras that have been turned into relief camps.
- NTPC’s hydel plant is at the epicentre of the calamity.
- Blasting and dynamiting the mountains are common occurrences in the State.