Joshimath sinking: How man-made factors assaulted fragile ecology
Joshimath , on the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH 7), it is an overnight halt for the people visiting the shrines at Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib and tourist destinations Auli, and the Valley of Flowers.
Puran Singh was born in Joshimath. He was a young man in 1975, the first time subsidence was reported in the town. Now 76, he is witness to years of untrammelled development that some experts blame for the heaviest subsidence reported in the town -- one that has created mass hysteria and resulted in a mini-exodus of residents.
“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 town has a population of more than 25,000. Over the years, the burden on the town has grown and it has now caused danger to Joshimath’s very existence,” said Singh, who works in a small tailoring shop in Joshimath.
Population estimates of the town vary widely, from 20,000 to 25,000.
Joshimath , on the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH 7), it is an overnight halt for the people visiting the shrines at Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib and tourist destinations Auli, and the Valley of Flowers. Many popular Himalayan treks too start in the town, which is at an altitude of 1890 m. This has led to the development of many hotels and resorts in the area.
According to state government officials, there are around 3800 residential structures and 400 commercial buildings in the town. Singh says most have up in the last 20 years.
Standing near the shop where he works in the Joshimath main market, Singh points to Hotel Nanda Devi, one of the oldest hotels in the town, and said, “It used to be a single-story hotel. The hotel itself has become a ‘pahad’ (mountain). It’s too late to save the town”.
This period has also seen various large infrastructure projects come up in and around the city such as National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. A tunnel is being dug for the hydropower plant under the Joshimath Town, and some residents claim it is a reason for the town sinking. NTPC has, however, refuted the claim saying the tunnel is being carved using a tunnel boring machine (TRM) and that its construction involves no underground blasting.
In a January 5 note, the company said: “NTPC is being held responsible for the land subsidence problem in Joshi. In this regard, it is clarified that there the tunnel built by NTPC doesn’t pass under Joshimath. The tunnel is dug by a tunnel boring machine and no blasting is being carried out presently.”
Then there is the Helang bypass, work on which is underway at the town’s foothill around 13 km away from Joshimath, that is meant to shorten the distance to Badrinath by 30 km. The four-lane by-pass is being constructed using heavy machines and blasting of the fragile hills in the region.
Atul Sati, convener of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, said, “Locals have expressed concern about the NTPC’s project and other unplanned infrastructure in and around three years ago but their appeals were ignored. Today’s tragedy is a result of that.”
Thakur Singh Rana, a 63-year-old former block president and hotelier who owns Malari Inn, which has been damaged in the subsidence said: “ NTPC’s project is the key reason for the subsidence. On the intervening night of January 2 and 3, we heard tremors and came out of the house. NTPC has been building a tunnel under the town.”
SP Sati, a Garhwal-based geologist, said, “What we are witnessing today in Joshimath is definitely a result of haphazard construction that has been going on in the town. The mushrooming of urban settlements is not a parameter of development but just physical growth. An extensive study should be done on the problem so that it can act as a lesson for other towns in Uttarakhand such as Nainital and Munsiyari.”
“It is interesting to note that a private company was preferred by National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) over the Geological Survey of India, for undertaking geological investigations related with the project. These investigations failed to take cognizance of the earlier geological investigations carried out in the area and did nothing to establish the depth of overburden all through the tunnel alignment,” geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela (the latter is now the executive director Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA)) stated in their report published in 2010.
The 2010 report added: “A tunnel boring machine (TBM) was employed for excavating the head race tunnel. On 24 December 2009, it punctured a water-bearing strata some 3 km inward the left bank of Alaknanda near Shelong village. The site was more than a kilometer below the surface, somewhere below Auli, according to the project authorities. The water discharge was reportedly between 700 and 800 litres per second. The aquifer discharge was about 60–70 million litres daily, enough to sustain 2-3 million people.”
Land subsidence in Joshimath is not a new phenomenon. In 1976, a committee was then formed under the chairmanship of Garhwal Commissioner Mahesh Chandra Mishra to investigate the cause of cracks developing in some structures in town. The report submitted by the 18-member committee clearly stated that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated; it recommended that construction be prohibited in Joshimath.
The state government on January 5 finally stopped construction work at Joshimath , including that of the Helang Bypass project and NTPC Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric Project .
The NTPC project was scheduled to be commissioned in 2012-2013 but was delayed by a decade and even suffered financial losses due to a series of mishaps.
To be sure, the climate crisis appears to have played a part in the incident, just as it did in the February 2021 flash flood caused by glacier overflow in Raini that killed around 200 people, many of them at the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project site. Some residents of Joshimath claimed that they started noting cracks in their houses after this tragedy. “The impact of Raini village incident was visible here but no one was willing to listen to us,” Sati said.
Singh said Joshimath is no more a serene and quiet town. There is a frequent noise of blasting, huge amount of garbage is being thrown into sacred rivers, mountain streams have vanished or changed their course and landsides are normalized, he said angrily. “I am seeing death of my town. Even God is not happy with us, disaster is waiting to happen.”