INDIA: Joshimath, a sacred town nestled in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, is sinking. A very scary situation is unfolding in Joshimath: more than 600 houses have developed fissures, beams from many houses have been dislodged, dozens of families have been temporarily relocated to the town’s safer areas, and some commercial structures like hotels are perilously leaning on one another.
Joshimath, on the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH 7), serves as the gateway to the sacred site of Badrinath, one of the Char Dhams, the Sikh pilgrimage site of Hemkund Sahib, the skiing destination of Auli, and the Valley of Flowers.
On January 8, around a week after cracks appeared in hundreds of houses and many rods, Joshimath—a busy town—was declared a landslide-subsidence zone by authorities.
The declaration came following a high-level meeting between senior Central government officials, representatives from the state of Uttarakhand, and senior officers from organisations such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH), and the Geological Survey of India (GSI).
The town, which sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level, is filled with spiritual vibes and is a base camp for trekking and Himalayan mountain climbing expeditions.
This has led to the construction of many resorts and hotels in the area.The town has 400 business buildings and about 3800 residential structures, according to state government officials. The population has increased widely in the past 20 years.
“In the 1960s, there were just 30 shops in the town, and 400 families used to live here. “Now, there were more than 4,300 structures on the fragile terrain, and the town has a population of more than 25,000,” said Puran Singh, a Josimath-born resident.
“Over the years, the burden on the town has grown, and it has now caused danger to Joshimath’s very existence,” Singh added.
The catastrophe shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
The prospect of such an incident occurring in the area was first brought to light about 50 years ago, and it alerted against “unplanned development in this area and highlighted the natural vulnerabilities.”
Joshimath itself was formed amid perilous geological conditions. The town, which is situated on a hill’s middle slope, was constructed on the rubble left behind by a landslide that was set off by an earthquake more than a century ago and is located in an area that is prone to earthquakes.
Although the precise origin of the Joshimath land subsidence is still unknown, experts suggest that unplanned construction, excessive population, impediments to the natural water flow, and hydropower operations could all be contributing factors.
Land can begin to sink for a plethora of reasons. These include earthquakes, which can cause the Earth’s crust, the planet’s thin outer layer of rock, to move or cause an elevation change.
A sinkhole, a depression or hole in the ground produced by the collapse of the surface layer, can be formed when subsurface water erodes rocks beneath the surface.
However, land can also sink as a result of human activity, such as excessive groundwater extraction and aquifer draining, which is thought to be the possible cause of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, sinking more quickly than any other city in the world, according to geologists.
The US Geological Survey estimates that excessive groundwater extraction is to blame for more than 80% of land subsidence worldwide.
Joshinath’s woes appear to be primarily the result of human activity. The sand and stone are delicate because a lot of water has been pumped out of the ground over the years for cultivation. The town has been gradually sinking as a result of soil erosion.
In 1976, a committee was then established under the leadership of Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra to look into the reasons why some of the town’s structures were beginning to develop cracks.
The 18-member committee’s study, which recommended that construction be halted in Joshimath, said unequivocally that Joshimath was built on an old landslide zone and may sink if development proceeded unabatedly.
However, the caution was ignored. Over the years, the area has expanded into a crowded entryway for tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists.
The pilgrims had a 45-kilometer (27-mile) journey to the Hindu shrine town of Badrinath. The area is visited by tourists who walk, climb, and ski. There are now a large number of hotels, lodgings, and restaurants.
Around the town, a number of hydroelectric power projects are being developed, such as the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad project.
To increase communication and develop infrastructure, roads have been built and tunnels are being bored.
Some people believe that Joshimath Town’s sinking is the result of the hydroelectric plant tunnel that is being built underneath it.
The Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project, whose tunnel goes “all through the geologically fragile area below Joshimath,” is a major concern as per geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela’s 2010 report, “Disaster Looms Large Above Joshimath,” which was published in Current Science.
However, the claim has been refuted by NTPC, who maintain that a tunnel boring machine (TRM) is being used to construct the tunnel and that no underground blasting is taking place.
Then there is the Helang bypass, which will shorten the journey to Badrinath by 30 km and is now under construction at the town’s foothill, around 13 kilometres from Joshimath.
Heavy machinery and blasting of the area’s delicate hills are being used to build the four-lane by-pass.
On January 5, the state government officially put an end to all building projects in Joshimath, including the NTPC Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric Project and the Helang Bypass Project.
Joshimath, which is situated in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, offers a “fragile landscape” with its valleys, hills, gorges, and rivers, geologists say.
Natural calamities have plagued the state for a very long time. Between 1880 and 1999, there were more than 1,300 fatalities caused by just five unfavourable incidents, including earthquakes and landslides.
According to official data, at least 433 people died as a result of landslides, cloud bursts, and flash floods between 2000 and 2009.
1,312 people died in such catastrophic weather-related incidents between 2010 and 2020. Around 400 hamlets have been marked unsafe for human residency.
Over 300 people died in Uttarakhand alone in 2021 as a result of landslides, flash floods, and avalanches, according to research by disaster management officer Sushil Khanduri.
Singh said that Joshimath is no longer a quiet and serene town. “There is a continual noise of blasting; tonnes of trash are being dumped into holy rivers; mountain streams have disappeared or changed their routes; and landside vegetation is normalizing,” he said angrily.
“I am seeing the death of my town.” “Even though God is not happy with us, disaster is waiting to happen,” Singh continued.
Residents of Joshimath are on tenterhooks at the moment. According to a top senior official quoted by a local activist, 40% of city residents may need to leave if the sinking continues. If that is the case, Atul Sati says, “it will be hard to save the rest of the city.”