When 35-year-old Neelam Parmar went to her kitchen garden in October to tend to her seasonal vegetable crop, terrifying memories flashed through her mind. As she began shovelling the soil, Parmar paused briefly and thought to herself, “What if cracks emerge in the land like they did in January?”

On January 2, 2023, Parmar’s home in Manohar Bagh, a ward in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath, was one of almost 900 houses in the town that developed cracks; the land around her home also developed cracks during this time. Stray cracks had been appearing in the town even earlier, but that morning, residents watched in horror as buildings, and the earth itself, split open all over the town. Water gushed out of some of the new cracks in the ground, which included ones that were as wide as two feet, and ones as long as half a kilometre. The disaster caused deep depressions in parts of town and left multi-storeyed hotels tilted.

Parmar’s eight-member family was moved to a hotel in a safer part of the town, where they shared a single room. Scores of other families were similarly moved to hotels, as well as schools and dharamshalas. They were offered an immediate relief payment of Rs 1.5 lakh, along with food and medicine, and heaters and blankets to beat the biting winter cold.

In the months that followed, the government began to announce measures to aid those who were forced out of their homes. The tehsil office surveyed the damage that houses suffered, and as a medium-term measure, announced financial compensation to families based on the extent of this damage – though, of the allocated compensation, Rs 1 lakh was deducted in the cases of those who had already received relief of Rs 1.5 lakh earlier. Some affected families were given an additional monthly payment of Rs 4,000 for six months to allow them to rent alternative accommodation. The administration also marked with a large red cross the walls of houses, such as Parmar’s, that it deemed unsafe to inhabit.

Neelam Parmar’s house in Manohar Bagh, a ward in Joshimath. After the administration deemed the house unsafe to inhabit, Parmar’s family rented a house across the road from it. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

While families welcomed this compensation, they remained anxious about long-term measures that would allow them to resume their lives safely. Around 20 days after the disaster, the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, or USDMA, announced that 120 families who had houses in unsafe zones would be relocated.

But as it turned out, this announcement would mean little to Parmar or any others who had been displaced.

In December 2023, almost a year after the disaster, Scroll visited the Himalayan town, situated at an altitude of around 6,000 feet. From interviews with residents and officials, we learnt that so far, USDMA has not relocated a single family.

“The relocation process will be long,” an official working closely with the immediate relief and relocation measures said on the condition of anonymity, since he was not authorised to speak to the media. “New surveys will be done to mark out zones in Joshimath that are unsafe, and sites for relocation have to be found.” He added that the work had hit some unexpected hurdles – for instance, in one potential relocation site, Pipalkoti, a village about 35 km from Joshimath, residents had protested against a proposal to resettle some families from Joshimath in the town.

Scroll emailed the USDMA to ask about this delay in relocation, as well as other concerns pertaining to the disaster. As of publishing, they had not responded.

The delay has left many families stranded – they could not risk returning to their damaged homes, but they had nowhere else they could go.

Some families locked up their homes and moved to other villages, towns and cities to live with children or other relatives.

Some, who did not have this choice, have returned to their damaged homes.

Parmar’s family rented out a room across the road from their damaged family home. By day, she spends time at the old home, nurturing her kitchen garden, and playing with her white Pomeranian, named Puppy, whom her landlords have not permitted to live with them. By night, she returns to the rented home to sleep. “We are living an in-between life,” Parmar said. “Neither are we able to go back to our homes fully, nor has the government relocated us to a different area.”

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Multiple scientific reports that analysed the Joshimath disaster determined that it had been caused by a massive increase in the flow of water under the surface of the ground in parts of Joshimath. This led to a sharp increase in the rate of ground subsidence, or the sinking of the surface of land as a result of internal movement of ground material such as soil.

A report by IIT-Roorkee surmised that the subsidence possibly occurred as a result of “internal erosion”, or erosion under the surface of the ground, caused by water from various sources seeping into the ground over the years, including rainwater, melted snow water, and water discharged from houses and hotels.

The phenomenon is not new to Joshimath. Scientists first observed in the 1960s that the town was facing subsidence. They determined that this was occurring because the town was settled over the debris of a previous landslide, and that the ground was predominantly composed of boulders and gravel. According to recent studies, 50% of Joshimath lies in a “very high risk zone.”

Construction activity over the decades exacerbated the problem. A GSI report published after the January disaster noted that in Manohar Bagh, a dense construction of “towering structures”, built over the town’s foundation of landslide debris, which was saturated with ground water, “accentuated the shear stress on the slope” which in turn accentuated the subsidence of the area.

In mid December, a boring machine was at work about a kilometre from Manohar Bagh. The machine was operated by Fugro, a Netherlands-based company that uses geological data to analyse risks of installing and operating infrastructure projects – here however, workers were collecting samples of the material that makes up the slopes of Joshimath to analyse the land subsidence. “We have six borewells around the town to collect samples,” one of the working men said.

The samples that they were collecting astounded him. “We drilled 31 metres underground here,” he said, showing me the metal box of samples collected. The team found a high predominance of boulders in the land, along with soil. The worker explained that boulders are inherently unstable and that heavy construction is best avoided in areas where land is primarily made up of boulders.

A boring machine operated by Fugro, a Netherlands-based company, which is analysing land subsidence in the town. A worker noted that they had found a high predominance of boulders. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Apart from the multistorey buildings that were granted clearance for construction, residents believe that a major share of the blame for the worsening of the problem lies with the NTPC, formerly the National Thermal Power Corporation, which has been digging a 12-km tunnel for the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project. While there are other hydropower projects in the area, this one is closest to Joshimath – at one point, the tunnel passes just a kilometre from the town. Residents believe that the company’s blasting operations and its tunnel boring machine, which has been at work for many years, have exacerbated subsidence in the town. In fact, in 2021, residents even filed a public-interest litigation, alleging that the work had threatened the stability and safety of the terrain and caused irreparable harm to the region’s ecology. The petition demanded that the NTPC project and another hydropower project in the region, Rishiganga, be cancelled.

Scroll emailed NTPC to ask about locals’ fears about the company’s activities, and the current status of its work in the region. As of publishing, it had not responded.

Atul Sati, a local activist and leader of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, or JBSS, explained that activists had been opposing NTPC’s work in the area since 2003, when the company first surveyed the area for the project.

“By then, other hydropower projects in Selang and Tapovan had reached an advanced stage of construction, and caused cracks in people’s houses,” Sati said. “We had no doubt that the same would happen to us.”

Their protests intensified after an accident at an NTPC construction site in 2009. That year, as NTPC bored through the slopes to create a tunnel, a large boulder fell from a few metres above the construction site, causing an aquifer to burst. “Water then gushed at about 700 litres per second,” Sati said. “When this happened, it confirmed our apprehensions about losing our water resources with the construction of the project.”

Residents believe that significant blame for subsidence lies with NTPC – a tunnel for the company’s Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project passes just a kilometre from the town. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The JBSS demanded that NTPC should financially compensate any families whose houses developed cracks due to the construction work, as well as provide a long-term drinking water solution for the town’s residents through pipelines.

At the end of a three-month protest, Sati said, NTPC began working on a piped water supply, and promised insurance payment for any house that “completely collapsed” in the next five years. “During those five years, no house fell, so no insurance was given,” Sati said. “However, some did start noticing cracks.”

After the January 2023 disaster, however, “NTPC has been given a clean chit”, said Pushpa Devi, a resident of Gandhinagar, another impacted ward of Joshimath. She was referring to an April 2023 report by the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, which cleared NTPC of any responsibility in the January disaster.

The study examined the possibility that work on the tunnel could have caused water to seep underground to Joshimath, resulting in the subsidence in the town. It determined that the seepage in Joshimath had “no plausible connection” with the NTPC project. It also concluded that because the excavation work closest to Joshimath was being conducted with a tunnel-boring machine, and not through blasting, “prima-facie the very question of any blast-induced damages attributing to the current situation is very unlikely”.

However, residents and officials alike continue to believe that NTPC’s construction has created a heavy load on land in Joshimath. “To a certain degree, tunnelling by NTPC is also a contributing factor of land sinking here,” the official said. “But studies have to be completed to say it assertively.”

A year since the disaster, stark reminders of the disaster are visible in the region. Wards have a deserted look, with locks on doors and large red crosses on walls. Metal boards warn motorists of the sinking land and instruct them to proceed slowly on roads. One of Joshimath’s biggest tourist attractions – a ropeway connecting it to the skiing destination of Auli – has remained non-functional since January, after the land below one of its pillars sank.

Apart from the Rs 1.5 lakh relief that the state government provided to every family displaced due to land subsidence, it also announced further compensation to those affected based on the extent of damage their houses suffered.

But as Scroll found after speaking to around twenty affected residents, the process has been plagued with many problems.

Among these is the fact that while residents are entitled to compensation for damage caused to their houses’ structure, the government has made no commitments about compensating them for the loss of the land on which the houses are built.

“We have been told that right now the land is being surveyed for subsidence,” Parmar said. “Once that happens, we will get compensation based on how bad the situation is.”

The official working on relief measures told Scroll that the administration was in the process of determining compensation for land that had been rendered unusable, as well as for commercial establishments, such as shops and hotels, which had suffered damage.

Parmar noted that with just the compensation money for damage to houses, residents cannot afford to buy new plots and build new houses. As they wait for a permanent solution, the cracks in their homes are getting bigger. “I take a round to look at the cracks every day, and they are all increasing in size,” Parmar said.

Those who have returned to their homes have done so discreetly, since the administration had informed them that they would only be entitled to compensation if they moved away. Among them are 32-year-old Reena Devi, who lives in Gandhinagar, about three kilometres from Parmar’s home in Manohar Bagh. Devi returned to her damaged home for the sake of her daughter’s education – her daughter’s school is just a walk away from their home. “Until the school’s winter vacation, we will stay here,” she said. Once vacations begin, they will move to Devi’s mother’s home in Gopeshwar, a town 55 km away.

She pointed towards the cracks in their walls and floor, which they have filled thrice so far, including after the January disaster. But during the last monsoon, “we noticed that the cracks again widened and all our work was rendered useless, so we stopped getting it filled now,” Devi said.

It had snowed lightly a day before Scroll’s visit, and Devi added that heavier snow could be dangerous for the cracks – once the snow melted, water could trickle into and accumulate in cracks, causing them to widen.

“Initially there was a lot of fear about living in this house,” Devi said. “But now, the fear is also gone. We have accepted the situation.”

Some residents have returned to damaged homes despite the risks. They have chosen to do so both because of their ties to the homes, and the government’s delays in resettling them. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Another flaw in the government’s compensation policies that some residents noted was that they would only be eligible for compensation if their houses had been damaged, and not if they had been rendered unusable for any other reasons, even those related to the problem of subsidence.

For instance, the administration declared Maan Singh Matolia’s house in Manohar Bagh unsafe because it was situated in front of a large boulder that was at risk of being displaced if the ground sank further.

Matolia and his wife were first evacuated to a hotel, where they shared a large hall with around five other families for around three months. But they found it inconvenient to share the space, and so moved to a house of a friend’s relative in the safe part of the town for another two months; they moved again after more of that friend’s relatives came in. They then lived for three months in a government house allotted to Matolia’s son-in-law, which he was not using at the time, and then finally moved back to their own home. Matolia received the initial Rs 1.5 lakh relief payment for all those displaced by the subsidence – but is not eligible for any further payment for resettlement that was assured to those whose houses were damaged.

Despite being forced out of his home, Maan Singh Matolia has not received compensation beyond initial relief. This is because his house was not damaged, but was only at risk from a boulder. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Matolia’s family’s displacement also cost them a direct income. “Our only source of income was a room that we used to rent to tenants,” Matolia said, as he plucked ripe oranges from a tree of his neighbour’s house, which he was looking after, after the neighbours moved to Dehradun. But as Manohar Bagh emptied out, their tenants too left, and none have returned since.

Matolia pointed towards his neighbours’ deserted cowshed, just a few metres from the orange tree. “When they were shifted to the hotel, they had to let their cows go since they could not come here on a daily basis to feed them and take care of them,” Matolia said.

Despite the risk of living in the area, Matolia does not plan to relocate. “We will not go anywhere,” Matolia said. “The government is saying that they will move us, but let’s see where they move us to and when it happens. Where will two old people like us go?”

While residents like Matolia have suffered immensely, some find themselves in even more precarious positions.

Among them is 59-year-old Ranvjay Josiyal, who did not receive any compensation, although his house, in Gandhinagar, was also marked with a red cross. He explained that he was denied such compensation because his home was built in 2015-’16 with financial assistance under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, a Central scheme that provides financial assistance to economically weaker sections of society to build all-weather pucca houses.

“The administration is saying, since they paid for the house, why should they pay us compensation for the damages, if our own money was not spent on the house that is damaged?” Josiyal told me, as we sat on his terrace taking in the last of the day’s bright sun.

Josiyal argued that such an argument was unjust, not least because most beneficiaries had to supplement funds from the scheme with their own money. “What house can be completed with just Rs 4.5 lakh?” he said. “That’s the amount of assistance we received, rest we paid from our own pockets. Yet, we are not getting any compensation!”

After being shifted to a school temporarily, Josiyal’s family returned to their home almost immediately – without any financial assistance except the immediate relief of Rs 1.5 lakh, they could not afford to live elsewhere.

A long crack ran on the wall behind Josiyal. “Only God can save us now,” he said.

Pushpa Devi, who is in her fifties and belongs to the Dalit community, has also not received compensation for her damaged house, in Gandhinagar. Devi currently lives with her husband and three adult children in a dharamshala in Lower Bazar in Joshimath. They moved there in January, after cracks made their house uninhabitable. “For about 20 years we were living in a temporary shack we had made on government land in Joshimath,” Devi said, sitting in the common space of the dharamshala. In 2015, they were granted funds under PMAY, which they used to build a house.

Some residents of Joshimath, like Pushpa Devi, who built houses using funds from Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, have been denied compensation for the damage their houses suffered. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Devi noticed the first cracks appearing in their house a few years after it was built – Gandhinagar was the first ward in Joshimath where cracks began to appear. “I remember seeing the first one in 2021,” she said. “We informed the local administration. We called the media. But it did not get the same attention that we got later in January 2023.”

Now, after the January disaster, their house has been rendered completely inhabitable. They initially left all their luggage in their home and moved to the dharamshala – later, they found that many of their belongings had been stolen in their absence.

At the dharamshala, the family of five shares two rooms. One of the rooms has a makeshift kitchen, with a single stove in a corner. “Sometimes there is no electricity, sometimes there is no water,” lamented Devi, as her daughter finished washing utensils.

Devi pointed towards her and said, “She is using cold water to wash in this winter. There is no provision for heating water, we just heat on the stove, it uses a lot of gas. At our home at least we could light up firewood.”

Each time Devi and her family visit the tehsildar’s office to ask for compensation for their damaged house, they are told that it will be issued the following month.

But when Scroll enquired into the matter with the government official, he said that the administration did not have a clear timeline for resolving cases such as Devi’s, involving houses were built under PMAY. “It was the government that gave the money for the house, not the people,” the official said. “Then how does it make sense to give them compensation?”

Devi noted that the town’s “bade log”, or big people, referring to those with caste and economic privilege, said that they had all either received compensation, or had been able to make their own arrangements, such as living in other houses they had built. But small people like her, “chote log”, were stuck in a logjam.

Harshal Gajjar, a senior associate with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements argued that the government’s position in this matter was flawed because under the PMAY, the government was obligated to assess the potential risks of disaster when directly issuing funds to individual families to build houses. Gajjar explained that usually, authorities only inspect sites for potential problems such as a lack of storm water drains, an absence of access roads, and risks of flooding, but do not assess them for risks of other disasters. At most then, he added, they suggest that houses should be built on higher plinths to protect them from flooding.

“They end up then constructing houses that might become vulnerable later to disasters like earthquakes,” he said. “After making these vulnerable houses, the scheme does not have a component for compensation in case of such disasters, which increases the communities’ vulnerability.”

Sati noted that another section of the community that was particularly vulnerable was those who had settled on government land. He estimated that there were about 150 such families without land titles among the approximately 900 impacted by land subsidence. “Last year when the disaster happened, we were in continuous conversation with the government to put such families’ land to their name so they can receive compensation,” Sati. “The district collector had agreed too.”

Some of these individuals and families did receive compensation. But in April 2023, a 35-member committee that conducted an assessment of the town’s needs after the disaster recommended that financial assistance should not be provided if the affected households did not have valid land ownership documents, or if they had encroached the area illegally.

The official working on relief measures told Scroll that the administration was discussing the possibility of resettling such families. “When the relocation happens, all such families will definitely be included in the process,” the official said. “But as for the financial compensation, we are awaiting a final decision from higher authorities.”

While the administration has yet to relocate any of Joshimath’s residents affected by the sinking land, many told Scroll that they were uncertain of it as a solution anyway. They noted that even if their current houses were not liveable now or in the long term, moving would mean being stripped of their livelihoods.

“Right now, I am on the way to my field, where I will collect cow dung and spread it on the fields,” said Anita, an aunt of Neelam Parmar’s who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. “I will collect some oranges on the way. I will cultivate some winter vegetables. What will I do in the new relocated place? Everything important to us is here.”

Many townspeople also benefit from the fact that Joshimath is a Hindu pilgrimage destination, a gateway to Badrinath, one of the “char dhams” of Uttarakhand, and the starting point of popular treks. Many residents have small shops in the market, or like Pushpa Devi’s husband, put up temporary shacks to sell fast food. “We don’t have a guarantee of such livelihood in the new place,” Devi said.

Pratap Lal, a resident of Gandhinagar added, “We don’t exist alone right, we also have our ancestral property, our children, our cattle. Where will we get such a facility there?” When Lal’s home sank, he shifted his family to another home adjacent to it, also owned by him, which had not developed any cracks. He received compensation of Rs 19 lakh, but is fearful of his current living situation. “This entire area is going down,” he said. “If other houses in the area are breaking and cracking, then this is not too far behind.”

Lal, who had heard that Pipalkoti’s residents had opposed the relocation of people from Joshimath in their village, said that he did not want to hear taunts all his life of being an outsider. “But we might not have any other option other than to take up relocation wherever the government provides.”

Pratap Lal is hesitant to relocate because he fears being treated as an outsider. “But we might not have any other option other than to take up relocation wherever the government provides,” he said. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The administration is aware of families’ concerns with relocation. Thus, the official working on relief measures explained, their primary aim is to relocate families within the same tehsil they lived in; if that proves difficult, they aim to find sites in other tehsils within the same district.

Atul Sati agreed that relocating resident close by was crucial. “People here have their land, they have customary rights to the forests and forest produce here,” he said. He noted that in conversations with the administration last year, the JBSS had suggested sites close to the town for relocation. This included a 7.5-acre patch of forest land about one kilometre long and about 500 metres wide, situated about a kilometre from the town. “This could have accommodated 400 families,” Sati said. “Another option was a place close to Auli called Koti farm. The government even did geological mapping of these areas and found it to be safe, but these have not been selected.”

The official said that at the moment, these two and other sites were being considered, but that none had been confirmed. In the meanwhile, he explained, the USDMA was trying to ensure that families that had received financial compensation for damages to their house had found alternate arrangements and not returned. “We are soon going to cut the electricity and water supply of those houses that have received the compensation, and are ensuring police patrolling to ensure that no one is staying in those unsafe areas,” the official said.

Joshimath’s residents hope that the town’s slopes can be stabilised so that they can continue staying in the town, “to save what exists,” as Parmar said. Anita added, “We have to understand, where is this water coming from? What is inside this mountain? Surveys have to be done soon so we know our future. Then we can take a call on relocation.”

Parmar began plucking fresh lemons from her kitchen garden and offered some to me. “It’s been a year since we have become homeless,” she said. “Things are as they were then, a year ago. Nothing has moved.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.