Joshimath Land Subsidence Victims Take Out Torchlight Procession After Govt Fails to Address Issues

The stir had been suspended for 20 days after an assurance from chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami that demands for compensation and rehabilitation would be met. 

Dehradun: The Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (JBSS), an organisation of residents of Joshimath, Uttarakhand, that aims to protect the mountain town from land subsidence and other issues, took out a mashaal jaloos (torchlight procession) on May 11, Thursday.

The JBSS has demanded better relief and rehabilitation package, and fulfillment of their charter of demands submitted to Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami last month.

The samiti took out the procession despite attempts by the police to stop it.

The JBSS’s demands, given to the government in April in the form of an 11-point memorandum, include:

  1. A declaration from the government that the entire Joshimath area is disaster affected;
  2. Adequate compensation to each of the more than 800 families made homeless by land subsidence starting in the last week of December 2022;
  3. The opening of a relief and rehabilitation office at Joshimath;
  4. Simplification of the procedure to get compensation for damaged buildings;
  5. Compensation for those who gave their land to the army during the war with China in 1962;
  6. The publication of the reports of scientific  institutions on land subsidence in the area;
  7. The formation of a committee for stabilisation work that would include local members from the JBSS;
  8. Arrangements for the accommodation of those who lost their homes to subsidence until they are permanently settled;
  9. Stoppage of work on the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project;
  10. Stoppage of work on the Helang Marwari bypass; and
  11. Implementation of the 2010 agreement between the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) building the Tapovan Vishnugad project, the Central government, the state government and the local people.

The organisation had suspended its agitation for 20 days starting April 20 after an assurance from Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on April 8 that its demands would be met. But with the state government now focused on managing the Char Dham yatra – the annual pilgrimage by lakhs of people to four of Hinduism’s holy sites in the Himalayas – there has been no sign that the issues raised by the JBSS will be addressed, leaving the organisation with no option but to resume its stir.

Failures upon failures

The land subsidence crisis in Joshimath, a small, beautiful town of some 20,000 residents perched at a height of 6,000 feet in the hill district of Chamoli in Uttarakhand, was first brought to the attention of the state government in November 2021, when residents began noticing cracks in buildings and sunken spots in the area.

When the government did not respond to these alerts, the JBSS was formed in 2022. Even then the government failed to address the issue until the last week of December 2022, when land sank abruptly. Houses, buildings, hotels and even roads developed huge cracks and water flowed from some of these cracks. More than 800 houses were declared unsafe for habitation, their residents shifted to safer locations in schools, guest houses and hotels where they were provided with lodging and food. The damaged buildings, including houses, hotels and government edifices, were later demolished under the supervision of scientists from the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee, leaving 800 families homeless.

At first, a government order permitted the homeless residents of Joshimath to stay in their temporary accommodation till March 31, 2023. This was later extended to April 30, 2023 and now the government has been forced by a public outcry to extend the stay till May 31, 2023. Even so, according to Atul Sati, convener of the JBSS, the homeless families are being pressured to vacate their temporary premises.

“Many have shifted to rented accommodation or even back to their damaged houses,” said Atul Sati.

Cracks in a house in Joshimath. Photo: Author provided

According to the March 2023 report of the Social Development for Communities (SDC) Foundation, a Dehradun-based think tank, relief funds have so far been disbursed to only 10% of the families affected by the Joshimath land subsidence.

“Over two months after the Uttarakhand government sanctioned Rs 45 crores as immediate relief for the people of subsidence-affected Joshimath, the government has distributed Rs 8.3 crores as one time settlement under the Joshimath rehabilitation policy to 31 families, which is just around 10% of the total of the families identified as affected,” said Anoop Nautiyal, chairman of SDC.

He added: “The affected families are also being forced to run from pillar to post to get the necessary no objection certificates and clearances for seeking monetary relief under the rehabilitation policy.”

Indresh Maikhuri, secretary of the state unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and a leader of the Joshimath agitation, said that the government’s entire rehabilitation exercise so far has been a failure.

“Monetary compensation has been paid to 55 families for the damage to their houses and only a few prefabricated houses have been built for the affected, that too at far off places where the people are not willing to shift,” Maikhuri claimed.

The Chamoli district administration update on the Joshimath relief and rehabilitation said that as of May 8, 2023, a sum of Rs 658.75 lakhs had been distributed as relief to the affected while a sum of Rs 1,649.51 lakhs had been given to 60 families under the rehabilitation package. The update said a total of 868 houses had developed cracks and only 96 families comprising 378 members are still staying in relief camps under the jurisdiction of Joshimath municipality, while 200 families comprising 617 members have either shifted to their relatives’ homes or taken accommodation on rent.

An unstable environment

Joshimath serves as a gateway for the Hindu temple of Badrinath, the snow sports resort of Auli, the Sikh gurdwara of Hemkund Sahib and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Valley of Flowers. Since it attracts lakhs of pilgrims and tourists every year, development in the town and its surroundings has been unbridled, putting enormous pressure on resources like water, power, etc.

Worse than that is the fact that Joshimath town is situated on a moraine – an unstable accumulation of rocks and soil left behind after the passing of a glacier – which makes it prone to landslides.

Makeshift arrangement to stop boulders from falling with iron pipes at Joshimath. Photo: Author provided

In 1976, the then Uttar Pradesh government ordered the formation of an 18-member committee headed by the then Garhwal commissioner M.C. Mishra to examine the area after the devastating floods of 1970. The committee learned that Joshimath is situated on a moraine and recommended safety measures such as no interference with the slopes, no cutting of trees and a proper drainage system for the town.

However, none of these recommendations were followed, given the lucrative potential of tourist and pilgrim movement and accommodation in the town. For example, more than 15 lakh pilgrims visited Badrinath temple in 2022 alone.

In 2022, when residents of the town began pointing out areas where land had sunk, the state government constituted a committee of experts from the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA), CBRI Roorkee, IIT Roorkee, Wadia Institute, Dehradun and the Geological Survey of India. This expert committee was tasked to undertake geological and geotechnical investigations of Joshimath and visited the town in August 2022. They found that the town was built on an unstable foundation which could collapse in situations like heavy rain, tremors, unregulated construction or more footfalls than the carrying capacity.

The committee attributed the sinking of land to the numerous homes, hotels and resorts that have mushroomed on the Joshimath-Auli route. Poor drainage and sewage and erosion by rivers have aggravated the situation, the committee said.

After the ordeal faced by the town’s residents in late December 2022, the chief minister visited Joshimath on January 7, 2023 and ordered surveys and studies by various scientific institutions of the country. These studies were undertaken in the months of January and February 2023, but while the findings have reportedly been given to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) they have not been made public.

In fact, a ‘gag order’ was issued to all scientific institutions studying Joshimath by the NDMA just after the Indian Space Research Organisation reported that Joshimath had witnessed a vertical sinking of 5.4 cm between December 27, 2022, and January 8, 2023.

Because the reports on the Joshimath land subsidence have not yet been made public, the people of the town are afraid and confused.

Atul Sati, convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. Photo: Special arrangement

“The delay of the government in making the reports public has not only led to doubts among the people but also affected the rehabilitation of the affected people,” said Atul Sati.

He added: “Compensation for the damaged buildings is being paid, but the compensation for the land has to be based on the reports of the scientific institutions, which are not being made public for whatever reason. Since most of our demands have not been met, we are forced to restart our agitation. The dangers of the impending rain have magnified our fears.”

Already, inclement weather and unseasonal rain and snowfall have affected the Char Dham yatra. The new registration for the Kedarnath pilgrimage has been suspended till May 15 due to the accumulation of snow en route to the temple.

Dr S.P. Sati, a geologist at the H.N.B. Garhwal University who had been involved in a study on Joshimath’s land subsidence in 2022, said that the state government has withdrawn itself from its responsibility of providing safety to the people.

According to Dr Sati, the existing cracks in the buildings of Joshimath have widened and new cracks have developed. “There is every possibility that the slopes will further subside in the coming monsoon  season, which is not far away,” he said.