Buildings in sinking Himalayan town of Joshimath set to be demolished

The crisis spotlights the trade-offs policymakers face between development and environment.

Published : Jan 10, 2023 17:15 IST

A temple collapses after the gradual ‘sinking’ of Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on January 8.

A temple collapses after the gradual ‘sinking’ of Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on January 8. | Photo Credit: PTI

Authorities will demolish some buildings in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath near the China border after evacuating families in the past few days, an official said on January 10, as hundreds of houses developed cracks in the area popular with pilgrims.

Experts and residents have long warned that large-scale construction work in and around the town, including for power projects built by companies like state-run NTPC, could lead to land subsidence. NTPC, India’s largest power producer, is constructing the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric power project close to Joshimath but says its tunnelling and other work is not responsible for the cracks in the town of about 17,000 people.

“The tunnel built by NTPC does not pass under the Joshimath town,” the company said in a January 5 statement, adding no blasting was being carried out currently while building the tunnel.

The deep fissures in the buildings at Joshimath are likely due to a combination of factors including unchecked infrastructure growth, construction of the power project, absence of proper drainage system and violation of municipal rules around building homes, according to Y. P. Sundriyal, a Uttarakhand-based professor of geology at H.N.B. Garhwal University.

The crisis at Joshimath, which is built on the debris of an old landslide, spotlights the tradeoffs policymakers face between development and ecological preservation. The town has seen rapid infrastructure growth plus massive tourist footfalls, damaging the fragile ecosystem and triggering frequent landslides and flash floods.

Gateway to shrines

Joshimath is a gateway to Hindu and Sikh shrines and is popular with tourists looking to trek parts of the Himalayas. Nearly 700 houses in the town in Uttarakhand state have developed cracks and some 400 people have been moved to safer locations, authorities say.

“Six structures from across four wards have been found very unsafe,” Himanshu Khurana, a top official of the Chamoli district where Joshimath is located, said. “We will demolish some unsafe buildings based on the recommendation and under the guidance of federal experts.” Two buildings have been identified already for demolition, he said, without clarifying when that could happen.

Khurana earlier said that work on some border road projects as well as NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad 520 megawatt hydro power plant had been suspended.

Women break down prior to leaving their homes that have been marked unsafe by the district administration and vacate the areas affected by the Joshimath land subsidence, on January 10.

Women break down prior to leaving their homes that have been marked unsafe by the district administration and vacate the areas affected by the Joshimath land subsidence, on January 10. | Photo Credit: ANI

Local resident Prakash Bhutiyal, 50, said seven of the 11 rooms in his residence-cum-guesthouse had developed cracks and they were waiting to be moved to a safer location. “Our family of nine has been forced to live in just one room,” he said. “We have kept all our belongings in the open. We are yet to be shifted to a safer place.”

Supreme Court refuses urgent hearing of plea

The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused urgent hearing of a plea seeking the court’s intervention to declare the crisis in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath a national disaster, saying there are “democratically elected institutions” to deal with the situation and all important matters should not come to it.

A bench of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha listed the plea of local religious leader Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati of Joshimath for hearing on January 16.

Advocate Parmeshwar Nath Mishra, appearing for the petitioner, mentioned the plea and sought its urgent listing for January 11. “Everything important need not come to us. There are democratically elected institutions to look into it. We will list it on January 16,” the CJI said.

The lawyer had mentioned the plea also on January 9 for urgent listing. “Mention again on Tuesday after following the due process when your matter is in the mentioning list,” the bench had said.

Saraswati has contended that the incident has occurred due to large-scale industrialisation and sought immediate financial assistance and compensation to the people of Uttarakhand. The plea has also sought direction to the National Disaster Management Authority to actively support the residents of Joshimath in these challenging times.

“No development is needed at the cost of human life and their ecosystem and if any such thing is to happen, then it is the duty of the State and Union government to stop the same immediately at war level,” the plea said.

Army post

Besides Joshimath’s significance for Hindu pilgrims and biodiversity enthusiasts, it’s also a key military garrison for the Indian army that defends a part of the disputed border between India and China. Its importance has only increased after the recent border dispute with China escalated.

The Indian army is on stand-by to move in for rescue and evacuation, a senior military official said, adding that a few military installations have also been damaged.

Environmentalists have been red-flagging Uttarakhand’s breakneck economic development for decades. Incidents of land subsidence were reported as early as 1970s. An expert panel report way back in 1978 had said that no major construction work should be carried out in Joshimath and the nearby Niti and Mana valleys, local news wire PTI reported, as these are situated on top of moraines—a mass of soil and rocks left behind by a moving glacier.

(with agency inputs from Reuters, PTI, and Bloomberg)


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