Joshimath, the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites like Badrinath, Hemkund Sahib and the international skiing destination Auli, seems on the brink of a disaster.
Known as the place where Adi Guru Shankaracharya subjected himself to penance centuries ago, Joshimath is sinking gradually with huge cracks developing in its houses, roads and fields. Many houses have suffered subsidence, locals said.
A temple in Joshimath collapsed on Friday evening further alarming residents who have been living under constant fear amid heavily cracked walls of their houses for over a year.
"The problem began 14-15 months back in Gandhinagar area and then spread to other areas like Suneel, Manohar Bagh, Singdhar and Marwari," former Joshimath municipal chairman Rishi Prasad Sati said.
"Saklani family's house collapsed in Suneel but the alarm bells went ringing when huge cracks appeared around a fortnight ago on the walls of hotels Mountain View and Malari Inn, leading to their closure," he said.
Five families who lived in houses beneath the hotels lost their homes after that, he said.
"The houses of Bhagwati Prasad Kaparwan, Durga Prasad Kaparwan, Madan Prasad Kaparwan and Madhvi Sati also suffered extensive damages," Mr. Rishi Sati said.
A girl named Sanjana, who stands in a room with cracks on its walls and ceilings, said, "They have been appearing for one and a half years."
Vishnupuram, a posh colony for the employees of 420 MW Vishnuprayag hydel project of JP Ventures had to be vacated entirely when huge cracks appeared right in the middle of it on January three and many houses subsided, company official Col T.N. Thapa said.
Though none of around 150 employees living in the colony was hurt as the roofs of the houses are made of time many houses in the colony, the company's guest house and canteen were damaged badly, he said.
"People are supporting their residences with the help of bamboo poles and tucking rags into chinks," Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti convenor Atul Sati said.
Joshimath is the last border town of strategic, religious and tourist importance which falls into seismic zone V, he said. If an earthquake occurs, it will cause extensive damage to life and property, Mr. Sati warned and demanded immediate rehabilitation of residents.
561 residential structures, including two big hotels here, have been damaged by landslides, according to a government survey conducted on Wednesday.
However, the actual damage is estimated to be higher than the government estimate.
A large part of Badrinath National Highway is in the grip of landslide. Big cracks have appeared in people's fields. These cracks are widening every day.
A water stream suddenly gushed out in JP Colony near Marwari a couple of days back scaring residents.
Ravigram, Gandhinagar, Manoharbagh, Singhadhar wards of Joshimath municipality have seen maximum number of landslides.
So far nearly fifty families have left their homes for security reasons.
Some are staying with their acquaintances while some are staying in shelters. The number of people leaving their homes and taking refuge elsewhere is likely to only go up in the coming days.
Joshimath has many outstanding features. If one talks about religion and culture the famous Badrinath Dham and the penance place of Adi Guru Shankaracharya are inseparably associated with the identity of this city.
It is also known as the gateway to the world-famous skiing destination Auli, Asia's longest and highest rope-way project, the 420 MW Vishnuprayag hydropower project and the NTPC's 520 MW Tapovan project under construction.
Apart from being a religious and cultural city, it is one of the largest towns near the India-China border and also a very important place from the strategic point of view due to its unique location.
Strong resentment against government in Joshimath for ignoring warnings
Strong resentment prevails among people against the government for the indifference with which it treated the warnings about the dangerous situation of buildings in the Himalayan town due to heavy construction activities going on around it.
They hold the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project mainly responsible for the situation.
“We have been drawing the attention of authorities for the past 14 months. But we were not heeded. Now when the situation is getting out of hand, they are sending expert teams to assess things,” Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti convenor Atul Sati said.
“If attention was paid in time to what we were saying things would not have been so alarming in Joshimath,” he added.
Land subsidence had made the houses of 14 families insecure in November 2021 itself, Mr. Sati recalls.
He said that people held a demonstration following this at the tehsil office on November 16, 2021 demanding rehabilitation and handed a memorandum to the SDM who acknowledged that even the tehsil office premises had developed cracks .
“If the government was aware of the problem why didn’t it act for more than a year to address it? What does that show?” Mr. Sati asked.
He said that under the pressure of people immediate steps have been taken like temporary stopping of the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad project and construction of Helang-Marwari bypass but they are not a permanent solution.
“The threat to Joshimath’s existence will persist until these projects are stalled permanently,” he said.
Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti will continue to fight till the very end until it is done, he added.
Former Dharmadhikari of Badrinath temple Bhuvan Chandra Uniyal also holds the manner in which the NTPC works for the cracks.
“The tunnel of Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project is located right beneath Joshimath. Big boring machines were brought for its construction which have been stuck in the ground for the past two decades.
Tons of explosives are used on a daily basis for the tunnel’s construction. Land subsidence gained momentum on January 3 due to large amount of explosives used by the NTPC.
Mr. Uniyal is also angry with the NTPC for breaking its promise made to people.
“The NTPC had earlier said that construction of the tunnel won’t harm the houses of Joshimath. The company had even promised to do insurance of the infrastructure in town. It would have benefited the people. But it did not keep its word,” he said.
“We should be told on the basis of scientific facts what is the future of Joshimath. Is it inhabitable or not. If yes, for how long. If not, then the government should take our land and homes and rehabilitate us or else we would lay down our lives on it,” Mr. Uniyal said.