Residents of Joshimath, the Himalayan pilgrim town that appears to be sinking, are blaming major power and road infrastructure projects for their plight and are demanding that the government resettle and give new homes for all those who have lost their properties in the town where they had invested their life savings. The members of the National Disaster Management Authority are set to visit the town on Monday to assess the situation and advise the State government.
A day after Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami visited the town, which is experiencing land subsidence — the technical term for the sinking phenomenon — residents continued their protest at the tehsil headquarters on Sunday, blaming the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan-Vishnugad power project for the ‘irreversible’ damage to the sacred town.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) convened a high level review of the situation in Delhi on Sunday, attended by State and Central officials, and scientific experts in geology and disaster management. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also held discussions with Mr. Dhami about the situation.
According to an official statement from the PMO, Uttarakhand Chief Secretary S.S. Sandhu informed the review meeting that after a ground-level assessment, it has been determined that a strip of land with a width of around 350 metres has been affected. The PM’s Principal Secretary, P.K. Mishra, stressed that the immediate priorities for the State should be the safety of people living in the affected area. A National Disaster Response Force and four State forces have reached Joshimath, where the district administration is working with affected families to evacuate and relocate them to safer places with adequate arrangements for food, shelter and security, said the statement.
Atul Sati, convener of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti which is leading the residents’ protest, said that the government had only stopped the development project when the town was on the brink of disaster. “We had warned years back that NTPC’s work is going to get this town to sink. No one paid heed. Look at the situation of Joshimath now,” he added.
Putting equal onus on the construction of the Helang-Marwari bypass by the Border Roads Organisation, Dinesh Chaudhary, a shopkeeper in Sunil village of the Joshimath region, said that merely halting the projects will not help. “The government must put a full stop on the NTPC and BRO projects. Only then Joshimath will be saved,” he added.
The residents of Joshimath, also known as the gateway town to the Badrinath temple, said that they have been complaining to the government about cracks in their houses for over a year now. However, the administration has become active only after its own building started developing cracks. In fact, the cracks in Joshimath are not confined to just homes and buildings anymore; even the roads and rocks on the trekking routes have visible fractures.
‘Evacuation, rehab too slow’
Dehradun-based social activist Anoop Nautiyal alleged that over a week’s time, the district administration in Chamoli has only managed to evacuate 68 families and could only make temporary rehabilitation arrangements for 1,271 people so far. He added that the slow pace at which the administration was working on evacuation and rehabilitation was not enough in this “time of emergency”.
“On January 4, the district administration had space for rehabilitation of 385 people. Five days after the rescue operations started, allegedly on a war-footing, the administration, till January 8, was able to manage to create space for rehabilitation of 1,271 people. This figure is not even 6% of the total population of Joshimath,” alleged Mr. Nautiyal.
According to the 2011 census, Joshimath has a population of over 16,000 people. Administrative officials say that the town currently has over 20,000 people living here.
Chamoli’s Additional District Magistrate Abhishek Tripathi said that the administration has also asked the NTPC and Hindustan Construction Company to each make temporary arrangements for the rehabilitation of 2,000 Joshimath residents. “We will rehabilitate people in Pipalkothi, 35 kms from Joshimath, if need be,” he added. The district administration has also distributed ration kits and other necessities to those displaced.
Former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat, who visited the area, cautioned people that as life is precious, they must vacate their houses if they were damaged. “We can understand your situation. We are with you,” the Congress leader said.
NDMA visit today
In the PMO review meeting in Delhi, it was decided that all four members of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Border Management Secretary will visit Joshimath on January 9, to assess the findings of technical teams and advise the State government on short and long term actions. “Residents of Joshimath are being informed of the developments and their cooperation is being sought. Advice of experts is being sought to formulate the short-medium-long term plans,” said the PMO statement.
The online review meeting was attended by the Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary, and other senior officials of the Union Government, members of the NDMA, the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police of Uttarakhand and other State officials, Chamoli district magistrate and Joshimath officials, experts from the Indian Institute of Technology at Roorkee, the National Institute of Disaster Management, the Geological Survey of India, and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.