Shivlal, a resident of Joshimath’s Singhdhar locality, on his land that crumbled on the night of January 2, 2023 (Photos: Raul Irani)
Where the market begins in Joshimath town, two hotels stood by each other till early January when they began tilting towards each other. The land in Joshimath sank at several places due to a process called subsidence, a downward vertical movement of the Earth’s surface. It caused major cracks in the ground and in buildings. In the last six weeks, over 700 houses have developed cracks. A hundred and sixty-seven of them are uninhabitable now. The administration has marked these as unfit, and those who have
had to leave these houses have been shifted to temporary shelters.
Behind the two hotels is the town’s Singhdhar locality where Shivlal, who will turn 75 this year, lives with his family. From the roof of his house, the Himalayas look too close; it is as if someone has done to it what Jim Carrey’s character does to the moon in Bruce Almighty. Above Shivlal’s house (and behind the hotels) is a narrow road laid with cemented tiles that have been pulled out at several places due to subsidence. When he was a child, Shivlal says, it was this road that pilgrims took to reach the Badrinath shrine, one of the four sites of the Hindu Char Dham pilgrimage, 45km away.
Everything began to wither. The beans would still appear, but they were much smaller in size, says Shivlal
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As he slept next to his wife on the night of January 2, Shivlal heard a crackling sound from underneath their house. The family rushed out thinking they were experiencing an earthquake. As he looked at the patch of land he owns, Shivlal says he was shocked to see that a portion of it had just crumbled below by about one foot. By next morning, the catastrophe at Singhdhar was evident. Several houses had developed big cracks, including the one belonging to Shivlal’s immediate neighbours who had to vacate it. Shivlal attributes the lesser damage to his house to a boulder located in the right corner of where his land begins that he says absorbed the shock of the subsurface movement. But even then, he has had to shift his family to one of the shelters. Like most others whose houses got damaged, they return to the house in the day and then go back to the shelter at night. It does not make sense, except that the residents think they will be alert during the day and can escape if the house comes down.
But Shivlal has concerns older than the fear of losing home. He has been worried about the future; about how to sustain his family, especially his three baby granddaughters whom he dotes on—one of them lost her father a few years ago. The problem is that the family drew its sustenance from the land that had been affected much before the sinking occurred.
For years, Shivlal grew Malta oranges, apricots, walnuts and different varieties of beans. But in the last few years, he says, the harvest began to decrease substantially. “Everything began to wither. The beans would still appear, but they were much smaller in size,” he says.
Why did it happen? Shivlal pauses for a moment. He is a wise man and knows things, even things such as how men like him behave when they access fake information on WhatsApp. “I have no belief in the devil till I see it with my own eyes,” he says. Shivlal has one answer for what went wrong: human greed. There was a time, he says, when the Bhotiyas (a nomadic tribe in the Trans-Himalayan region) would leave their belongings on the road and cover them with a plastic sheet, fastened with stones at four corners. “Even the children playing nearby would skirt around it, saying the dump belonged to someone else,” he says.
We tried our best to take the Goddess along, but she did not budge. I have to respect that, says Chandra Vallabh Pandey
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Those were simpler times when a bus ride to Rishikesh, a distance of 250km, used to cost `13 and four annas. In those days, at several places, only one-way traffic was allowed. So, a convoy of vehicles would carry a red flag on the first and a green on the last—the red flag would make vehicles from the other direction stop and the green meant they could start. Everyone was patient. It was a kinder, more innocent time. But now, something ominous had occurred inside the Earth, rendering the soil impotent.
AT THE HEART OF what Shivlal says lies a question that the modern world has struggled with for a long time: If development has to come, at what cost must it? In Joshimath’s case, it has come at such a heavy cost that there is a possibility that the town may become totally uninhabitable. In the past, in Uttarakhand, there has been the question of ghost villages, caused by the migration of people to cities and towns, looking for a better life. But now, with experts warning that reckless development has not only created a crisis for Joshimath alone but for several places in the state, one may have to confront the spectacle of ghost towns. The Uttarakhand-based geologist, SP Sati, calls this growth “unplanned and uncontrolled”. Sati says that in the last two decades at least 3,000 villages and towns have been threatened with landslides due to road construction (alone).
It is quite evident the moment one crosses Rishikesh town on the way to Srinagar. On the right is the Ganges, and on the left are hills of the Himalayan range, crumbling and devastated with incessant activity, including road construction. There is not any stretch where the warning sign for rockfall and landslide has not been put up. Activist Atul Sati, who has been bringing to the fore the plight of Joshimath for years, says that there were fewer than 10 spots earlier on the Rishikesh-Joshimath stretch where landslides were a danger. But after the government’s Char Dham project for widening the roads leading to the four shrines (including Badrinath), the landslide spots have increased to 145, he claims.
There is no question of opposition to development. Beyond the idea of pilgrimage to be done in a way that entails hardship, the welfare of the people living in these parts also has to be taken into account—they like everyone else deserve good road connectivity and other amenities like electricity and water. But there is something to be said about what experts call “carrying capacity”. The Himalayas in most stretches are now unable to carry the burden of the modern man. The recklessness at one place is now cascading to other areas. The crisis is summed up by Anjal Prakash, research director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad: “Joshimath is a very grave reminder that we are messing up [sic] with our environment to an extent that is irreversible,” he writes. In a recent article, Prakash calls for a “transformative change” in how one must think of growth.
How will my sons rebuild this?, asks Rishi Devi
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There are no signs so far of that change. And it is not about the current times only. In Joshimath’s case, former Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra, in his report in 1976, had clearly warned that any development in this area should be “heavily regulated”. Of course, that did not happen. Big projects were sanctioned for decades without paying heed to any expert recommendation.
In Joshimath today, the locals believe that a big portion of damage to the town has been caused by the hydropower project run in the area by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). “We feel that it is a result of the blasts done for creating tunnels by them,” says Atul Sati. Though NTPC has denied it, in Joshimath, a video showing blasting happening in a tunnel (allegedly done by NTPC even after it claimed to have stopped work) has gone viral. It has also led to protests and residents putting up “NTPC Go Back” signs in front of their shops.
SHIVLAL’S NEIGHBOUR, RISHI DEVI, weeps outside her crumbling house. It was built by her husband who passed away four year ago due to a heart attack. She lives here with her two sons and their children. The two outdoor bathrooms have tilted on one side. There are huge cracks in the house and the small temple where they keep their family deity has collapsed completely. “How will my sons rebuild this?” she mumbles and continues weeping.
In the market above, there is too much buzz. The chief minister is around, and it has led to a flurry of activity. Amidst extra police presence, government cars carrying officials cannot catch a break. Neither can a chopper that makes several rounds over the town during the day. In front of the Malari Inn, one of the two tilted hotels, TV anchors say the same things again and again. The hotel will be the first building in the town to be brought down.
Overlooking the market road is the town’s Manohar Bagh locality. As a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker tries to console her, Hemanti Rana tells her that she did not let government officials put a cross on her house, marking it as unfit. “It has developed cracks, but where do I go with my husband who is paralysed?” she asks. They began living in this house 30 years ago. Their son runs a small mobile repair shop on the edge of the market. “There is hardly any income. What do we do? That thought is making me pull my hair,” she says.
Former Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra, in his report in 1976, had clearly warned that any development in this area should be ‘heavily regulated’. Of course, that did not happen. Big projects were sanctioned for decades without paying heed to any expert recommendation
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A few steps up, Chandra Vallabh Pandey and his family had to leave their house and take shelter with a relative. There are big cracks all over the house. One little shake and it could all come down. The family comes back in the day, hovering around the house. Pandey himself goes back to the last room where the floor has been ripped apart. It is here that the family’s temple is. “We tried our best to take the Goddess along, but she did not budge. I have to respect that,” says Pandey.
His son, Naveen, has returned from Dehradun to help his family. He has a background in software development, and after working with several prestigious companies in Delhi, he shifted back to the state to start an online business of his own. The night before, like many of the Joshimath residents, he has received the NTPC video on his WhatsApp. “Nobody is concerned about people. They will make us shift and then establish a shopping mall on the landfill,” he says.
For his part, Atul Sati has been warning about the impending doom for 14 months now. It was when cracks began to appear in several houses in town. His concerns, submitted in the form of a petition, were dismissed in 2021 by the High Court of Uttarakhand that also imposed a cost on petitioners. Even now, he says, the government is misleading people on the gravity of the situation. “The chief minister says do not spread panic. But can he come on record and say that there is no problem in Joshimath and that it is safe to live?” he asks.
As the crisis deepens, some people who had shifted here from Chain village, about a 30-minute drive from town, have returned. It is ironical since Chain itself faced a similar situation in 2007.
Although NTPC has denied it, a video showing blasting in a tunnel, allegedly after NTPC claimed to have stopped work, has gone viral. It has led to protests and residents putting up ‘NTPC Go Back’ signs
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In 1998-99, a power project belonging to the Jaypee group was started here. “When they [Jaypee] came, they were so good to us,” recalls Vijyendra Singh Panwar, the husband of the village pradhan Shakuntala Devi. Panwar claims that the group’s officials assured them that they had adopted the village and that they were going to provide free electricity and a job to one member each of the 120 families living here. But years passed and nothing much happened except that the company got a playground made at the local school, he says.
The power project was completed in 2005. Immediately afterwards, says Panwar, company officials began to ignore the villagers. “In the beginning, their cars would see us walking and offer us a lift. But as soon as the project was over, they stopped doing that,” he says.
In 2007, a big leak occurred in one of the project tunnels, causing major subsidence in one part of the village. Several houses were extensively damaged. Subsequently, 22 families had to be shifted to another village near Joshimath where they were provided with a little land and `3.65 lakh each to rebuild their homes. But till date there is no sale deed or any registry of sorts for the land, villagers say.
The incident also changed the lives of the remaining villagers. Like Shivlal, many grew fruits and other crops. But these began to wither and could not produce anything. “There is no moisture left in the land here,” says Digamber Singh, one of the residents. His house developed cracks in 2007 but he was not provided any compensation, he says.
After the recent subsidence in Joshimath, some residents of Chain alleged that their houses had developed new cracks. “It is happening all over,” says Sati. The question, he says, is whether the government is willing to save Joshimath.
“And by that I mean its people. The town itself is finished.”
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