Since making headlines in January, Joshimath town in Uttarakhand continues to sink while the massive development projects, which locals insist are causing the subsidence, also continue.

New cracks are appearing in the houses and roads of Joshimath town, along with deep cavities in the fields. But people who are affected, wait for rehabilitation, with only a few having received meagre compensation, that too for their houses alone.

The government has neither come up with a rehabilitation plan nor shared the report of the expert committee constituted by it to study the land subsidence, which could inform the people of the possible future threats.

The government has also ignored the allegations of residents that massive infrastructure projects, particularly the construction activities of the NTPC, formerly known as the National Thermal Power Corporation, are to blame for the land subsidence.

While pushing such development, the government has turned a blind eye to repeated disasters in Uttarakhand over the last decade alone, such as the 2013 and 2021 floods, numerous landslides and destabilised villages – like the Chipko village Reini in Joshimath.

With residents of the town having nowhere to go and few options in sight, such development projects are rendering Joshimath uninhabitable, in contrast to their stated goals.

Snowfall over Joshimath. Credit: Vaibhav78545, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Homes disintegrating, nowhere to go

Unable to relocate, many residents have been forced to stay on in their damaged homes, with no assurance for their safety and despite the threats of water and power cuts to push them out. Many are refusing to accept the meagre compensation fearing that they may be told to vacate their homes and will have nowhere to go.

In Uttarakhand, the government has formulated a rehabilitation policy for those affected by natural disasters. Though it remains inadequate, there is no policy for those in need of rehabilitation due to the displacement caused by development projects.

There have been no attempts to formulate such a policy for even those affected by the sinking of Joshimath. To address the issues of relief camps or compensation, the government has been passing office orders instead, leading to arbitrariness and further harassment of the affected residents.

For instance, the government has not been able to make any arrangements for the families to stay while rehabilitation is ensured, despite promises of providing pre-fabricated houses. The stay in hotels and government buildings was extended only on a monthly basis by passing orders, and that too under public pressure.

Affected residents had held a sit-in protest from January till April, when the government urged them to discontinue it while assuring them of rehabilitation measures.

But it failed to do so, making it apparent that its priority was to ensure a “disturbance-free” Badrinath yatra, by removing the protestors from the picture. Its approach was to downplay the disaster, and worse, to normalise it by saying disasters have become a yearly occurrence. To encourage even more tourists, despite the unstable terrain, no regulations or limits on numbers were imposed.

Now, residents are preparing to restart the protests, as they have no other way to ensure the government hears them.

Impact of projects

Residents have complained about the damage being caused by the NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project and the Helang Marwari bypass road meant to benefit Badrinath tourists.

Soon after the sinking of Joshimath had come to the fore, locals had demanded that the project activities be stopped, filling the town with posters of “NTPC go back”.

Instead, the government is also pushing for the other hydropower projects that have been stalled, with many put on hold by the Supreme Court after the 2013 floods, ignoring the huge losses to ecology and human lives and livelihoods that such projects cause.

It continues to ignore research that shows how the construction work of the NTPC project caused serious damage to the Joshimath region in addition to aggravating the 2021 floods, in which hundreds of workers were buried alive inside its tunnels as it failed to install an alarm system.

The Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. Credit: Ministry of Power (GODL-India), GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

Further, studies show that the damages caused by it are not just site-specific, but spread over long distances and unfold over time. For instance, a 2010 paper in Geomechanics and Tunnelling, authored by two consultants and a high-level NTPC official, shows how the rupture of an underground aquifer by its tunnel boring machine in 2009 could cause a discharge as heavy as 700 litres per second.

It explains that the erosion did not remain limited to one fault plane, but intersected with other faults “to form a three-dimensional network of erosion channels extending in various directions”. Such a large-scale dewatering, or loss of groundwater, say locals, led to drinking water scarcity in the town, and according to experts, factored in leading to the current land subsidence.

More importantly, the paper explains that such damages are bound to happen as tunnel excavation in the Himalayas, with their “young geology”, takes place in the absence of detailed and specific geological/geotechnical investigations. The investigations remain “superficial” “due to the inaccessibility of the project area”. That is, the geological conditions at such depths where tunnelling happens cannot be fully known only by probe drilling on which the projects rely.

Given such uncertainty, the faith shown by the government in such projects is literally “blind”, and unreasonable, when their impacts are long-term, widespread and irreversible. Many of these effects remain unknown. Those which are now experienced at most project sites after years of construction/functioning – like cracks in homes and fields, the disappearance of water springs, increased aridity of agricultural fields and reduced yields, and destabilisation of slopes – officially remain unrecognised as project impacts.

In Uttarakhand, sites like Joshimath are rare and an exception, from where the residents are not willing to migrate out. At most sites, the out migration is high in search of basic facilities or employment. But in Joshimath, residents do not want to leave their dwelling as they have a livelihood basis with their orchards, livestock and tourism-related business.

Rendering such few sites uninhabitable by excessive blasting, drilling, and deforestation cannot be “development”. It is for the right to govern, and draw sustainable livelihoods from their environment, that the people of the Joshimath region participated in the Chipko movement. They and their natural heritage should be saved from such a violative development.

Shruti Jain is an independent researcher and journalist who writes on the sociology of environment and development.

Also read: Greed sank Joshimath. I saw it happen