February 3, 2023

The ‘sinking of Joshimath’ leaves thousands homeless in an Indian hill town


Unstable geography and unchecked human activities led to the disaster

Originally published on Global Voices

Perilous settlements somewhere on the way to Joshimath, Uttarakhand. Image via Flickr by Kumara Sastry. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Joshimath, a hill town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India, at an altitude of 6,150 feet (1,875 metres), is facing a potential housing crisis as land subsidence issues are causing cracks in buildings and creating hazardous living conditions, forcing many residents to leave. As of January 17, 2023, over 800 houses have been impacted, and hundreds of residents have been evacuated to relief camps due to the earth shifting, referred to by the locals as the “sinking of Joshimath.”

Social activist Nadeem Naqvi tweeted:

Scientists have found that a large part of #Joshimath, which is facing land sinking issues, has become hollow. “So far, cracks ranging from 40 to 50 meters deep have been found inside the ground at about 460 places.”#Joshimathcrisis

— Nadeem Naqvi ندیم نقوی नदीम नक़वी (@NadeemNaqviNNg) January 27, 2023

A crisis in the making

A state government report in September 2022 confirmed ground subsidence in certain areas of the downhill slope from Joshimath were causing cracks in buildings and sinking roads. At the end of 2022, the residents had already noticed a crisis in brewing, and the situation kept getting worse in January 2023.

In the first week of January, 600 people were evacuated by the Uttarakhand government after a temple collapsed and other structures were deemed unsafe. While Joshimath was only declared a landslide and subsidence zone by the authorities after the latest developments in January, the town has been in crisis for some time. Land subsidence refers to the gradual settling or sudden sinking of the earth’s surface.

The cause of the subsidence is unclear, and multiple factors may be involved, but media reports suggest that neglect by authorities may have exacerbated the situation and that action was not taken promptly enough to prevent it.

Journalist Ismat Ara tweeted:

More than anything else, the story of Joshimath’s sinking is the story of the state government’s failure to pay heed to the residents’ complaints – which had been mounting much before the wide cracks started appearing. My story.

— Ismat Ara (@IsmatAraa) January 26, 2023

So far, four town wards out of nine have been deemed uninhabitable, and residents are being relocated to temporary housing such as hotels, hostels, government buildings, and relief centres. The government announced plans to establish temporary rehabilitation centres and provide prefabricated housing for affected families. Some residents have protested and declined to evacuate, alleging that the situation could have been prevented if the authorities had acted more promptly.

Independent media outlet Afternoon Voice tweeted:

Hundreds of affected people descended on the streets of subsidence-hit Joshimath on Friday to take part in a protest rally against the alleged slow pace of efforts to save the sinking town.#Joshimath #joshimathsinking

— Afternoon Voice (@Afternoon_Voice) January 28, 2023

Unchecked construction and over-tourism

Joshimath is situated in an earthquake-prone zone. It is a gateway to several Himalayan expeditions and pilgrimages — including the Hindu holy place Badrinath and the Sikh place of worship and pilgrimage site Gurudwara Shri Hemkund Sahib. As the number of people wishing to experience the Himalayas has increased over the years, expeditions have become more common, increasing demands for places to stay. Residents of Joshimath cite a growing number of commercial buildings as one of the reasons behind the present dilemma.

Expat Indian surgeon Bramha Kamal comments on the tweet of journalist Nikita Sareen:

#Joshimath affected badly by tourism” would be more appropriate.

Heavy engineering in eco-fragile #Himalayas is not the only cause, it exacerbated the evolving disaster.

Look at the loss of soil-stabilising trees.
And the increasing weight of concrete on unstable slopes.

— Bramha Kamal (@BramhaKamal) January 29, 2023

Political research organisation Polstrat tweeted:

#Joshimath is at risk of sinking due to large-scale construction projects, climate-induced flash #floods and extreme #rainfall.#Polstrat explores the public reaction and relief measures for the residents evacuated.#ClimateCrisis #naturaldisaster #india #disasteraid #evacuation

— Polstrat (@teampolstrat) January 20, 2023,

As early as 1976, an 18-member government Committee had declared Joshimath as a zone sensitive to seismic activities. Among its recommendations, the committee had made a strong case for heavily regulating construction in the area. However, as per the claims of news outlets and some of the reports, the area witnessed unchecked construction and ignored warnings, adding to the town’s already precarious circumstances.

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, writes @rahulpandita, #Joshimath

— Open Magazine (@Openthemag) January 24, 2023

According to experts, the activities on the ground lead to the blockage of drainage systems natural to the ecosystem and lack of proper wastewater disposal, which has also caused the soil underneath to shift, changing structures and increasing instability.

The tragedy in Joshimath has led to demands to declare the Himalayas an eco-sensitive site and monitor anthropogenic activities such as construction.

Journalist Gurbaksh Singh Chahal tweeted:

The resolution described the government’s response to the current situation as “inadequate,” noting that while many people will be displaced as a result of Joshimath’s sinking, the only way to solve the problem is by rehabilitating the affected citizens.

— Gurbaksh Singh Chahal (@gchahal) January 29, 2023

Whether Joshimath would be forgotten as an isolated case in a few months or this would lead to time-sensitive and long-lasting environmentally friendly measures remains to be seen. In the meantime, the region remains affected, with those fortunate enough to have survived with minimal damages, wondering if they are going to be the next.

Written by Anumeha Verma


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