The Sinking Feeling in Joshimath

Joshimath in Uttarakhand has both religious and tourist significance. But several villages in the area are slowly subsiding, say the local villagers and scientists who have studied the region. Houses have developed cracks making it highly unsafe for people to live in them. Maximum subsidence is observed in the wards of Ravigram, Gandhinagar and Sunil, and thousands of people may be displaced.

Megha PrakashMegha Prakash   4 Dec 2022 6:11 AM GMT

The Sinking Feeling in Joshimath

Though, the cracks began to appear in 2020, the frequency and depth of the cracks increased after the Raini flood on 7 February 2021. All photos by Megha Prakash

Joshimath (Chamoli), Uttarakhand

Neha Saklani is worried sick. While early morning mists blanket the mountains, and the thick warm clothes are out in preparation for the winters, Neha, who lives in the picturesque Sunil village of Joshimath, fears that this year's winter snow may be the downfall of her roof.

Not only is the roof of her house caving in, but the brick-and-cement walls of her home also have developed deep cracks. The college-student said that the ground beneath the foundations of her house was sinking. As a temporary measure to support the roof, her family has erected bamboo pillars.

"The house may collapse anytime, so we quickly clean, bathe and cook before heading out," she told Gaon Connection. She has been given strict instructions by her mother not to venture indoors till all the family members are back home in the evenings.

The college-student is not the only one worried. Her cousin, Ismit Saklani, who lives in the same village, is concerned too."If our house collapses, we will have no place to go. No one from the local administration seems to be taking any note about the seriousness of the situation," Ismit told Gaon Connection.

Cracks have appeared on the walls of a shop he owns and he lives in fear too as he comes from a joint family with limited resources or income. A collapsed home or shop would be disastrous, he said.


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Not too far from Sunil village is Ravigram, a ward in Joshimath block of Chamoli district, where the inhabitants are living under constant fear. There are about 150 homes in the village that the rural inhabitants claim are slowly sinking.

"Though, the cracks began to appear in 2020, the frequency and depth of the cracks increased after the Raini flood on 7 February 2021," Sumedha Bhatt, a mother of two said worriedly.

Joshimath in Uttarakhand has both religious and tourist significance. The Narsingh temple in Joshimath is the winter seat of lord Badrinath and every year hundreds of thousands pilgrims visit it. Joshimath is also a major tourist destination. Auli, the winter sport capital of Uttarakhand, is barely 16 kilometres from Joshimath. But, the latter is slowly sinking, say local villagers and scientists who have studied the area.

"Joshimath is nestled over highly metamorphosed rocks, which are subjected to weathering by heavy and continuous rains," Debi Prasad Kunango, principal scientist with Roorkee-based Central Building Research Institute, pointed out to Gaon Connection.

The numerous perennial water sources that flow throughout Joshimath and adjoining villages, over the time strip off the upper layer of soil (sand, silt, clay) on the slopes and create huge gaps or cavities, which leads to the sinking, technically referred to as subsidence, Vikram Gupta, a landslide expert from Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, explained to Gaon Connection.

There are about 150 homes in the village that the rural inhabitants claim are slowly sinking.

Maximum sinking is observed in the wards of Ravigram, Gandhinagar and Sunil. Besides, extensive cracks and sinking is visible along the Auli-Joshimath road, as documented in a report submitted by an expert team of geologists, who surveyed the Joshimath area in August this year. This multi-institutional team was set up by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority. Piyoosh Rautela (Executive Director, Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority) and MPS Bisht (Director, Uttarakhand Space Application Centre), had cautioned of disastrous consequence of an underground tunnel dug by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) for hydropower project in 2009. In the process of tunnel excavation, the machinery punctured the aquifer, resulting in discharge of about 60-70 million litres of water daily. In their report published in Current Science, they clearly stated that this large-scale discharge, the implication of which was negligibly visible around then, will lead to subsidence in future. Rautela was also part of the team who surveyed the area in August this year.

Also Read: Uttarakhand Disaster: Over 300 km from Joshimath in Chamoli, ripples of alarm in Himachal's Lahaul and Spiti

Recently, Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a local non-profit, wrote a letter to the state chief minister informing him about villages subsiding in the Joshimath area. Members of the organisation, who belong to the local villages, have demanded stoppage of some road works, rehabilitation of those affected, and a survey of all the houses in the affected region.

Environmentalists are warning of a disaster brewing in Joshimath, which is yet to catch the government's attention. The road to Auli passes through ward Sunil, which is facing severe sinking. "If the town sinks it will displace around 25, 000 people," Atul Sati, convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, told Gaon Connection. As per the census 2011, the population of Ravigram (2,920); Sunil (3,030); Gandhinagar (1,520); Singhdhar (2,300); Marwari (2,400), are the most affected.


Losing the ground beneath their feet

"Our bathroom door has sunk about five to six inches, and we had to cut the door from below and raise the floor to accommodate the door now," 40-year-old Sumedha Bhatt of Ravigram told Gaon Connection. At night, wild bears frequent the area, and this is dangerous as many of the doors do not close due to gaps between the door and the 'chaukhat', she pointed out.

The problem of faulty doors has forced Neelam Bhujwan, of Kothi village in Ravigram ward, to move out of her family-owned home.

"The door can't be closed so I have rented a room for Rs 4,000. It is difficult because I depend on my husband's pension and a small salary as an assistant anganwadi worker," Bhujwan, who lost her husband recently, told Gaon Connection.

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The science behind subsidence

The sinking of Joshimath is not a recent phenomena. It has been a dated problem but now after the flash floods of February 2021, the cracks have deepened.

There is a history of subsidence and fragility of this region, Saraswati Prakash Sati, a geologist and head, department of basic and social science, VCSG Uttarakhand University of Horticulture and Forestry, Rani Chauri, Gharwal, told Gaon Connection. "The terrain between Joshimath and Tapovan is situated on old landslide material and it was in the late 60s that the Joshimath began to subside at many locations," he said.

As far back as 1982, a report in the Journal of Photo-Institute and Remote Sensing, spoke of how the Sunil-Joshimath hill lay on an ancient landslide zone. The report also said that the area rested on giant boulders that were embedded in a loose sand-clay matrix. The presence of springs in the vicinity led to excess seepage that caused the boulders to be displaced and led to local sinking.

The authors of the paper, A. Bhattacharya and DK Jugran, recommended checking slope and soil stabilisation, and planting fast growing vegetation. They emphasised the importance of a proper drainage system allowing water from springs and smaller streams to flow unhindered into the river Alaknanda.

Environmentalists are warning of a disaster brewing in Joshimath, which is yet to catch the government's attention.

Added to erosion is the rapid urbanisation of the area. This, despite several reports on the dangers of over-building. Way back in 1976, alarmed by the urbanisation and erosion in the area, the Misra Committee set up by the then Uttar Pradesh government (till the year 2000, Uttarakhand was a part of Uttar Pradesh), submitted a report, a copy of which is available with Gaon Connection, where it clearly warned that there should be no further construction in the area until a proper examination of the stability of the site was carried out.

The committee also advised restricting excavations on the slopes for construction of houses, and preventing the removal of boulders and felling of trees in the landslide areas.

"Rapid urbanisation is putting a lot of dead load on the vulnerable hill slopes of low-bearing capacity," Kanungo told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: Torrential rains, rivers-in-spate and landslides leave Uttarakhand in troubled waters

Heavy construction continues

Too much construction has led to several large-scale landslides. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 128 landslides recorded in Chamoli-Joshimath region by CSIR's chief scientist, Kanungo. He published his findings in Landslides: Journal of the International Consortium on Landslides, in 2014.

In 2018, a report published in Current Science, highlighted major landslides in the region. It spoke of the massive landslide on 19 May 2017 at Vishnuprayag, the confluence of rivers Dhauliganga and Alaknanda, eight kms away from Joshimath.

The authors noted: "...The Hathi Parvat is a landslide prone zone because of the presence of loose boulders and large rock blocks on very steep slopes. The slope could fail in future due to triggering factors such as heavy rainfall, earthquake and anthropogenic activities. The road sector particularly from Chamoli to Badrinath is a high landslide prone zone due to weak geological formation, steep slopes, highly dissected topography, seismically active area and high rainfall…"

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Protests and agitation

There was a protest against construction of a tunnel for a hydropower project in Hathi Parvat in 1999-2000. The tunnel was to change the direction of the Alaknanda river to Joshimath. The underground tunnel was a part of the Rishiganga and Vishnugad hydro power projects.

Environmentalists complain that recommendations by scientific bodies and experts seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Underground tunnels create cavities, said Kanungo. It was therefore important to understand the tunnel alignments. "It is essential to properly investigate and observe the area. And only after that engineering solutions or measures can be designed to check further subsidence," he said.

Kanungo feared that many development bodies such as the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) did not really understand the terrain, hill slopes or the cause behind landslides. This lack of awareness could be a source of great danger.

"Remedial measures need integration of knowledge on landslides into the infrastructure process," the scientist said, and added that just putting a retaining wall is not enough. Each landslide is different and its impact differs.

Environmentalists complain that recommendations by scientific bodies and experts seem to be falling on deaf ears. Joshimath still lacks a proper drainage system. And, a wide range of development projects are underway.

On 13 May 2022, the Supreme Court gave the nod to the construction of the Helang-Marwari bypass road. It is a 13-kms stretch before Joshimath. Under the All Weather Road project, the bypass will reduce the distance to Badrinath temple town by 30 kilometres.


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