I first visited Joshimath in 2012 as part of fieldwork for my doctoral programme in sociology. The region was an important site for study for my research on hydropower projects in Uttarakhand. The site was of particular interest because an important chapter of the Chipko socio-environmental movement unfolded there in the 1970s.

The bus took an entire day from Rishikesh, as it slowly ascended the towering Garhwal mountains. It moved upstream along the Ganga up to Devprayag, the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. After this, the bus began to travel up along the meandering Alaknanda, which provided a soothing, fluid contrast to the rugged rocks around. As Chamoli district began, the steep mountains loomed over the road, seeming indestructible.

Finally, we pulled into Joshimath, a sleepy town located at a height of 6,107 feet, overlooking snowy peaks, framed by a bright blue sky. Facing the town was an elephant-shaped mountain, known locally as “hathi parvat”, and another mountain, known as “sleeping beauty” for its resemblance to a woman lying on her back. The area around the main bazaar lane was densely populated, but as one moved along the slope, houses, a few with apple trees in their backyard, began to spread farther apart. There was an air of tranquillity around the town.

Joshimath is a town in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. For decades, experts have been warning of the risks of excessive digging, blasting and building in the region, particularly for hydropower projects. Photo: AFP

Things were vastly different when I visited in January 2023, when the town made global headlines for its subsidence – literally, its surface sinking into the earth.

According to a preliminary report released on January 12 by the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, Joshimath town sank by about 9 cm between April and November 2022; from December 27, 2022, to January 8, 2023, it further sunk, by about 5.4 cm.

There was an atmosphere of chaos, panic and uncertainty in the town.

Its main lane was filled with National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Force vehicles and personnel, as well as trucks carrying relief material and numerous media personnel. A number of local families loaded their belongings in tempo trucks to be taken to safer places. Entire guest houses, like that of Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam, had been taken over by government officials who were camping in them.

The earth beneath Joshimath’s homes and fields has cracked open. In many homes, walls have developed fissures. Columns and beams have tilted, and roofs are on verge of collapse. At places, deep cavities have appeared in the ground.

In all, according to the tehsil office, more than 850 houses have developed major or minor cracks, and about 180 have been marked with a red cross, indicating they are dangerous to live in. Many relocation sites, like hotels, schools and the municipality building, and important facilities like healthcare centres, also soon developed cracks.

The crisis could have been averted. Several experts in the past had warned of the risks of subsidence in Joshimath, particularly if heavy construction was not controlled. Despite that, the region became an epicentre of numerous large infrastructural projects, especially contentious amongst which is the NTPC’s (formerly the National Thermal Power Corporation) Tapovan Vishnugad project, which has a planned capacity of 520 MW – that is, it is expected to generate 520 megawatts of power.

While the NTPC project is closest to Joshimath town, many other hydropower projects are under construction or have been proposed or set up in the vicinity. Other projects under construction are Vishnugad Pipalkoti (444 MW) and Lata Tapovan (170 MW) – the Supreme Court stayed construction on the latter, also an NTPC project, after floods in 2013.

Projects that have begun operation include the Jaypee group’s 400 MW Vishnuprayag project – another, the Rishiganga power project, was washed away in a flood in 2021. Proposed projects include the Alaknanda-Badrinath project (300 MW), Rishiganga I and II (105 MW), the Tamak-Lata project (250 MW), the Jelam-Tamak project (126 MW) and the Malari-Jelam (114) project.

Most of these fall within the Nanda Devi National Park or its buffer zone, and within 10 km of the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO natural world heritage site.

In 2003, local activists founded the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, or JBSS, to protest against such projects, particularly NTPC’s, and draw attention to the danger they posed to the region. The same year, JBSS wrote a letter to the Indian president, expressing their concerns about the NTPC project – but work on it continued.

Atul Sati, an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, and leader of JBSS, has watched the “‘disaster-in-making” since then. Now, he says, it continues to develop every day, “as newer homes develop cracks and the older cracks widen.”

Sati has attempted to ward off the crisis. In June 2021, he, along with fellow JBSS member Kamal Raturi, and three residents of Reini village, filed a public interest litigation in the High Court of Uttarakhand, demanding that the NTPC and Rishiganga projects be cancelled because they threatened the safety and stability of the terrain, and had caused irreparable harm to its ecology.

The PIL pointed out that the projects were carrying out large-scale excavation work by blasting, as well as excessive deforestation, illegal mining and improper muck dumping by the riversides.

The PIL was dismissed. The court raised doubts about the petitioners’ identities as social activists, and fined them Rs 10,000 each, “adding salt to our injuries” as Sati put it.

Later that year, in November, cracks started appearing in the Joshimath’s houses. Then, in January 2023, the town saw a sharp rise in the number of cracks and fissures. Referring to the Jaypee project’s township in Joshimath, Arti Uniyal, a resident of the town, said, “On January 2, muddy water started oozing out in Jaypee colony, and after that cracks spread all over Joshimath.”

Residents of Prem Nagar told me that cracks there appeared suddenly – they heard dogs in the area barking together, then a strange rumbling sound emerged from the earth and then, fissures appeared in around 50 or 60 houses all at once.

In January 2023, there was a sudden increase in cracks and fissures in Joshimath’s houses. Residents of one area said they heard dogs barking, and that cracks appeared in 50 or 60 houses at once. Photo: Shruti Jain

“The government has woken up too late, and is doing too little,” Sati said. “It has failed to come up with a proper plan for relocation.”

He explained that the JBSS was scrutinising the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007, which specifies the benefits and compensation to be provided to those affected by involuntary displacement, in order to understand the state government’s obligations. The Uttarakhand government “does not have a proper policy of its own,” he said. “It instead is pushing for ‘one-time settlement’, so that its responsibility ends there.”

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Joshimath has long been an important historical town, with great cultural, religious and strategic significance. It was the capital of the Katyuri dynasty in the 7th century CE, and is the location of one of the four “maths” established by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century. It is a stopover for religious tourists and pilgrims headed towards the key Hindu and Sikh shrines, Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, as well as for trekkers and skiing enthusiasts travelling to the Valley of Flowers and Auli.

Till 1962, Joshimath was one of the halts on a trade route between India and Tibet. After the Indo-China war, the trade stopped and substantial land in Joshimath was acquired to house heavy establishments of army brigade headquarters and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

Through the decades, Joshimath was also burdened by a rise in construction activity much beyond its carrying capacity, to support the increasing number of tourists. While in the 1960s, less than 1 lakh tourists bound for Badrinath visited in Joshimath, in 1990s the number was around 5 lakh.

Tourism continued to grow after the state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000, and the number reached 10 lakh by 2012. In 2022, according to municipality ward member Sameer Dimri, 19 lakh tourists bound for Badrinath arrived in Joshimath.

Winters see another set of lakhs of tourists. To celebrate the new year 2023, around 25,000 people visited the town, which is about 2,000 more than its total population. To support this footfall, over the decades, more than 150 hotels and homestays have come up in Joshimath, which covers an area of 2.5 square kilometres, Dimri said. Dinesh Rawat, a local in his forties, added, “Traffic load has increased manifold here, and traffic jams have become common.”

Joshimath is a halt for pilgrims headed towards the Hindu shrine Badrinath, as well as the Sikh shrine Hemkund Sahib. It is also a halt for trekkers and skiers travelling to the Valley of Flowers and Auli. Photo: PTI

To further bolster tourism, the Central government also started the Char Dham road-widening project in 2016 – a part of the plan is to build the Helang-Marwari bypass road at the base of the Joshimath slope, to provide smooth passage to the increasing traffic, and divert it away from the main town.

Along with tourism, the new state also sought to promote hydropower development, with successive governments pitching it as “Urja Pradesh”, or energy state, and promising to build 450 hydropower projects.

Since its formation, the JBSS has been raising concerns about the risks of tampering with the region’s sensitive ecology by blasting and drilling for the construction of roads and the hydropower projects.

In 2005, as a result of protests in the town, Chief Minister ND Tiwari could not visit Joshimath to lay the foundation stone of the project, inaugurating it from Dehradun instead. However, the project work continued, and people’s concerns remained unaddressed.

Sati explained that his worries were exacerbated by the subsidence in 2007 of Chayeen village, less than 10 km from Joshimath – according to Sati, this occurred after water leaked out of the tunnel of the Jaypee project, which had started functioning by then.

Residents of Chayeen told me that that same year, homes in the village, as well as fields and blooming orchards were damaged by the project. Though no studies were undertaken to measure the subsidence, one resident, Pushkar Singh Rawat, told me in 2012 that more than 40 houses and about 50 acres of terraced agricultural fields had sunk, and that “water sources dried and many fruit bearing trees withered away.”

After this, many affected families of Chayeen shifted to tin sheds set up near Joshimath. Some eventually settled in the locality of Marwari in the town, only to have their houses damaged again in the recent subsidence. Yashoda Bisht, one of those whose house was affected, said, “How many times can one go through the trauma of relocation in one life?”

Other villages in the vicinity are also facing similar problems caused by other hydropower projects. Faguni Devi of Reini village, which is known for its role in the Chipko movement, and which was affected by the Rishiganga project, said that they live in fear of falling rocks, particularly during rains, and that they often move to forests and caves for safety. A portion of the village sank in 2021, and the slope on which it is located has become unstable.

I learnt of and witnessed the impacts of NTPC’s project while visiting the region in 2014 and 2015. I saw that cracks had appeared in the homes of the villages of Dhak, Tapovan, and Selang in Joshimath block. These were all key sites or near key sites of the NTPC project. Tapovan, about 15 km from Joshimath, is the location of a 22-metre-high dam, while Dhak village is nearby. Selang, about 5 km downslope from Joshimath, is the site of its powerhouse. The mouth of the project’s main tunnel has openings at Selang and Tapovan.

A 2015 photograph of NTPC’s site at Selang, where its powerhouse is situated. By this time, cracks had already appeared in homes in the villages of Dhak, Tapovan, and Selang in Joshimath block. Photo: Shruti Jain

Locals also complained that the tunnelling had disturbed groundwater patterns in the region, and had left the water springs dry and farms arid – yields of crops such as rajma, potatoes and maltas had reduced significantly, they said.

During these visits, I noticed that Joshimath bazaar was teeming with NTPC jeeps. A stretch of about 25 km, from Selang to Tapovan village, seemed like occupied territory of NTPC. In Joshimath town, a complex of NTPC offices and guest houses had been built. At the two construction sites in Selang and Tapovan, flat areas had been cleared for the company’s bulldozers and other heavy machinery, and material – there were large arches bearing the company’s name at the entrances to these areas, which were guarded by security.

By this time, the NTPC had already been linked with the build-up of ecological crises in the region for many years.

In 2009, the NTPC’s tunnel boring machine, or TBM, which cuts through mountains, was damaged and ceased functioning after its digging caused a rock slip underground. This was accompanied by “massive surges of water” due to the puncturing of an aquifer, which, according to geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela, led to water discharge of between 60 and 70 million litres per day. In an article in the journal Current Science, which they titled “Disaster Looms Large Over Joshimath”, they wrote, that such “sudden and large-scale dewatering of the strata” had “the potential of initiating ground subsidence in the region”.

Locals also argued that the large-scale loss of precious groundwater was followed by a scarcity of drinking water in Joshimath town. After sustained protests by JBSS, Sati recounted, the town reached a settlement with NTPC whereby the company would provide insurance to houses, and fund a Rs 16-crore drinking water scheme for the town. But, he added, the agreement was not implemented.

Construction on the project proceeded – but it suffered repeated damage in floods in 2011, 2012 and 2013. According to a 2015 paper, the boring machine was stuck underground twice again in 2012, as a result of rock slips, and water had surged into the tunnel one of those times. In 2014, the contractors building the main tunnel, Larsen & Toubro and Alpine Mayreder Bau GmbH, both multinational construction companies, pulled out of the project, citing safety concerns.

Other problems continued to occur. In 2019, while hearing a plea of Tapovan residents, the National Green Tribunal fined NTPC around Rs 58 lakh for violating norms on the maintenance of sites where muck was disposed, and thus damaging the environment.

Further, the project exacerbated the damages of the February 2021 flood, a phenomenon that I analysed in a March 2021 paper. Its barrage first obstructed the flood waters, then collapsed, adding to the debris carried by it – which included debris of the collapsed Rishiganga project upstream, as well as muck dumped by these projects along the riversides. While the obstruction increased the ferocity of the floodwaters, the additional debris intensified the damage wreaked by them.

The NTPC project exacerbated the damages of the February 2021 floods. Its barrage first obstructed the waters, then collapsed, adding to the debris in the waters. Photo: Ajay Bhatt/AFP

The same floods also saw the preventable deaths of hundreds of NTPC workers who were trapped in its tunnel. The company had not installed an alarm system in the tunnel, although an expert committee, constituted at the direction of the Supreme Court to study the role of hydropower projects in the 2013 floods, had recommended it, and despite the fact that, as the floods in 2011, 2012 and 2013 showed, it had a history of damages caused due to such events. For this negligence, locals had demanded that a criminal case be filed against NTPC.

In August 2021, the mouth of NTPC’s tunnel in Selang was blocked by a substantial landslide which also led to the collapse of a hotel above it, and to some homes in Selang village upslope developing cracks. According to Dave Petley, an earth scientist, this exposed the inability of NTPC “to understand and manage geotechnical hazards.”

Ravi Chopra, who headed the Supreme-Court-constituted committee, emphasised that these various incidents had led to the current crisis. “The immediate cause appears to be tunnelling done by the NTPC,” he said when I spoke to him in January 2023. He added that earlier instances of water ingress had also contributed to the ground subsidence, and that during the 2021 floods, “water entered the tunnel with high pressure, developing new cracks and widening old cracks”, increasing the risk of subsidence.

One of the most contentious issues that locals have raised is that the NTPC has been conducting blasting in the region as part of its construction and tunnelling work – a 1976 committee, led by the commissioner of Garhwal division, MC Mishra, warned that blasting could destabilise the already fragile region. In a press release on 5 January, NTPC stated that it in recent times, it had not used blasting for construction of its 12.1 km main tunnel, and asserted that it had been built using a tunnel boring machine. As Shailendra Panwar, the chairperson of Joshimath’s municipal board noted, the company failed to address the question of whether it had used blasting in the many secondary tunnels that are also part of the project. Further, Panwar argued, the damage that the boring machine had caused in the past belied the company’s implicit claim that the machine was safe to use.

Panwar argued that NTPC’s boring machine was “only a showpiece” and that it “had been stuck underneath for years” without being able to move. He added, “Work is done by blasting.” Geeta Devi, from Sunil ward in Joshimath, echoed this claim. “When NTPC conducts blasting, the whole of Joshimath till Auli shakes,” she said.

The NTPC has flatly rejected the idea that it has played any role in the current subsidence, and argued that it is an “old issue”. The company did not respond to queries emailed by Scroll.in.

But experts and activists argue that even if the region was always at risk, the company had a responsibility to conduct the necessary studies to ensure that its activities did not increase these risks. Bisht and Rautela pointed out in their article that NTPC failed to “take cognizance of the earlier geological investigations carried out in the area.” Sati noted, “We had highlighted the fact that Joshimath is prone to land subsidence on the basis of the Mishra Committee report even when it was starting its work. But its work was allowed here, and that too without proper surveys.”

Even Ranjit Sinha, the current Disaster Management Secretary, reportedly said that NTPC had not conducted geological and geotechnical surveys of Joshimath town.

For the most part, however, the government has backed NTPC. The union power ministry has come out in support of the company, stating that “the construction of the tunnel in rock mass at a depth of around 1 km causes no impact on the surface ground.”

Further, the National Disaster Management Authority issued a gag order to government institutes and scientific organisations, after ISRO released its report on the measure of subsidence – the report was removed from the organisation’s website soon after.

“It is quite clear that it is due to NTPC that Joshimath is facing the present crisis,” said local MLA Rajendra Bhandari, of the Indian National Congress. “But who will hold it responsible when the government is with it?”

Sati recounted that cracks first appeared in about 12 homes in Joshimath’s Chawni bazaar area in November 2021. As the number of houses with cracks increased to 50 by June 2022, 100 by October, and 500 by December end, “we approached various government officials including the SDM and DM”, or the subdivisional magistrate and the district magistrate. He added, “We met the disaster management secretary on 26 August 2022, and the chief minister on 1 January 2023, but no action was taken.” He continued to raise the matter on social media, and spoke to different media platforms.

Many residents lived in fear in damaged houses for more than a year, from November 2021 onwards. A few recounted that they tried to plaster the cracks, or cover them with paper, or stuff them with clothes and gunny bags – but the efforts were in vain, and they had to suffer through the monsoon and winter months.

During this period, Geeta Devi recounted, the administration remained unsympathetic. “The local administration told us that it could provide any compensation only if the roof collapses, as specified in the state’s rehabilitation policy,” she said.

After the number of cracks rose sharply in January 2023, many more houses turned uninhabitable. Locals told me that they had invested their life savings in building their houses.

Devender Rawat, who has retired from the Sashstra Seema Bal, and is a resident of Singhdhar, said, “I will never have the resources or courage to construct a house again. If I do, I will build a wooden house.”

Harish Lal, who lives in the same area, explained that he had taken a loan to construct his house. “Now cracks have come in my new house, and I have not even paid back the loan,” he said.

Bhawani Devi, a resident of Sunil, said, “We built different parts of the house brick-by-brick over the years as and when we had money. We carried bricks and sand on our backs, so that we could save labour costs.”

Now, these families cannot live in their houses, and they remain unsure of where to take the belongings they have gathered over the years. They also cannot take cattle to the relocation sites, and so have to come back every day to look after them.

Many residents of Joshimath, who had spent their life savings or taken loans to build homes, have been forced to move out, and face uncertain futures. Photo: Roli Srivastava/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Close to 275 families have been relocated so far to different hotels and buildings in Joshimath. The crisis is also affecting locals’ ability to access healthcare. “Many are developing problems like high blood pressure and mental stress,” Sati said. “Health facilities were in want of improvement before as well, but in such a crisis situation, there is an immediate need to arrange for facilities for pregnant women and the sick.”

Godambari Devi, an elderly woman who was relocated to the municipality building, said that her family had a newborn child to look after. “It is becoming difficult to take care of my newly born granddaughter in the one room in which all of us stay without appropriate facilities, in the peak of winter,” she said.

Residents also have other fears, apart from for their safety. An elderly woman told me that she worries that if they are relocated far away, she will not be cremated at the ghat that her family has traditionally used for generations. Residents of Gandhinagar mohalla of Joshimath, which has 244 families belonging to Scheduled Castes, told me that they worry that they may not receive appropriate compensation or rehabilitation because the land on which they live is not registered in their names.

Sati noted that it was not just in Joshimath town that land was sinking and residents needed rehabilitation, but also in 23 villages of Joshimath block.

Many such villages, and those affected by past crises, are coming out to support the ongoing JBSS dharna at the tehsil office premises in Joshimath. “Initially Jaypee told us it will adopt the village, but it left us in a state of limbo,” said Mamta Bisht from Chayeen, among those attending the dharna. “After destroying our houses and livelihood, it did not provide any work or even electricity to such a small village, leave anything else.” Roshni Devi, also from Chayeen, added, “We know how a tunnel can bring destruction as we have lived through it. Our pleas for rehabilitation have remained unheard for all these years.”

Residents of Joshimath and nearby villages have been protesting against the companies whom they blame for the crisis. “Our pleas for rehabilitation have remained unheard all these years,” one said. Photo: Shruti Jain

The disaster is also having an economic ripple effect. Residents of these villages have strong economic links to Joshimath – some have shops in the town, some visit it to buy supplies or sell their agricultural produce, while some work as labourers, or in hotels. Others travel to Joshimath to study, or to seek banking or health facilities. Many visit the Narsingh temple regularly, considered an auspicious shrine to pray at before sowing crops. “Joshimath provides us with our daily bread,” Saraswati Devi of Merag village said. “Its plight is our plight.”

Joshimath’s residents are particularly angry about the current crisis because the numerous, detailed warnings that experts and activists issued to the government for decades were ignored.

In 1976, the Mishra Committee’s report noted that Joshimath was built on the deposits of an old landslide. The report cited older sources, specifically a 1936 book by Swiss geologists Arnold Heim and Augusto Gansser, who had conducted an expedition to the region, and from even earlier, the Himalayan Gazetteer of 1886 by Edwin Atkins, to underline its findings.

“When the state knew for 47 years that Joshimath is built on sand and stone, it should have specified how many storeys ought to be built in a hotel, and which land was suitable for which kind of construction,” said Dhan Singh Rana, a Chipko activist in his seventies.

The Mishra Committee was constituted by the Uttar Pradesh government after subsidence was observed in Joshimath in 1970s. Its report mentions that slight triggers could cause Joshimath’s slope to turn unstable. Among its observations and recommendations were that, “restrictions should be laid on heavy construction work”, that “it would be advisable not to remove boulders by digging or blasting the hill side,” that vibration caused by heavy traffic and blasting in the region would lead to “disequilibrium”, that “no tree should be felled in the landslide area” and that “lack of proper drainage facilities also accounts for landslides.”

According to Sati, “The Mishra committee report was also the basis of the JBSS’s protests against the NTPC’s project from the very start.”

The government did not heed the report’s warnings and recommendations. But locals did cite it multiple times while seeking to halt risky activities in the region. In one prominent instance, Sati recounted, some residents of Joshimath moved the High Court of Allahabad, challenging the construction of a road between the village of Helang and the Marwari area of Joshimath town. In 1991, the court stayed the construction, he said.

Navin Juyal, a well-known geologist, noted that in a 1985 paper, based on the Mishra Committee report, he and others warned against the excavation of boulders and blasting of rocks at the base of the Joshimath slope for road construction, which at times meant “use of one thousand dynamites every day”. They cautioned that such activities could “lead to a serious disaster in the near future”. However, work on the road started again after the Supreme Court cleared it in May 2022.

Bisht and Rautela’s 2010 article, in which they warned of the impacts of NTPC’s tunnel, which “traverses all through the geologically fragile area below Joshimath”, was also ignored.

Since 2020, Rautela has been the executive director of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority. He was the first author on a September 2022 report of a multi-institutional survey organised by the authority. The report did not mention NTPC’s tunnel as a factor for subsidence in Joshimath. Instead, it focussed on the lack of proper drainage and sewerage systems, the poor quality of construction of houses, and other factors. Rautela did not respond to Scroll.in’s request for a comment on this report.

In 2014, another major set of warnings was issued by the Ravi Chopra committee’s report. It recommended that above an altitude of 2,500 metres in the Himalayan region, “hydropower projects and other developmental activities should not be permitted” because such areas include important wildlife habitats, see high levels of seismic activity and contain “glaciogenic sediments”, which are fragile and “prone to mobilization” during extreme weather events, such as the floods of June 2013.

These warnings were ignored too, and work on various hydropower projects and roads, and other activities proceeded.

By June 2022, after close to 50 houses of Joshimath town developed cracks, JBSS urged the government to form a committee to survey the area. When it failed to do so, JBSS invited a team of geologists, including SP Sati and Navin Juyal, to conduct an independent survey of Joshimath.

The team’s report reiterated the findings of the Mishra committee. In addition, it said, the February 2021 floods which carried large amounts of debris, “destabilized the old landslide deposits.” About the NTPC’s project, with specific reference to the 2009 water ingress, it noted that the company had conducted “no assessment regarding the impact of tunneling on the surface topography that passes through various depths.”

It is not only activists and geologists who have been cautioning against the impacts of infrastructural development. Since December 2022, cracks also appeared in the math complex, and the Shankaracharya, or its head, Swami Avimukteshwaranand, spoke out against the blasting done for NTPC’s tunnelling, and the Char Dham road widening. When I spoke to him on the phone in January, he noted, “The NTPC has created a web of tunnels here and has emptied all the groundwater, leading to subsidence.”

In January, I also contacted SP Sati to talk about how the crisis had spiralled out of control. “When we had things to say to caution about the situation as a scientist, no one listened to us,” he said. “Now that there is nothing much left to say, and it has become difficult to save Joshimath, we have been pursued by media day long for comments.”