Joshimath: The horrors of life in India’s sinking Himalayan town

Prakash Bhotiyal was awakened by a “loud sound” early on January 2 in his home in Joshimath, a small Himalayan mountain town in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

The 52-year-old tailor discovered massive holes in the brick walls of nine out of the house’s eleven rooms after turning on the lights and looking about his recently constructed, double-story home. The 11-person extended family rapidly fled to two rooms where there were just minor hairline breaches in the walls. Since then, they have been hiding out there.

“We remain up till really late. Panic is sparked by a tiny sound. In case of an emergency, we go to bed prepared to go immediately “Mr. Bhotiyal says.

But outdoors, things aren’t all that safe either. Officials claim that property in Joshimath, a community of 20,000 people situated on a slope where two valleys converge at a height of 6,151 feet, is gradually sinking (1,874m).

Over 670 of the 4,500 buildings have developed cracks, including a ropeway and a local temple, in a 350 m broad region, according to officials. The streets and sidewalks are cracked. Right now, two hotels are hunched over one another. There has been water coming out of fields for unknown causes.

80 families have been relocated from their homes to the town’s schools, motels, and homestays. Disaster response teams have arrived, and if necessary, helicopters have been requested for airlifting evacuees. “Save lives is our first priority.

It is, however, easier said than done considering the way people here live.

Durga Prasad Saklani, a 52-year-old daily wage worker, lived in a cramped three-room house, but after cracks appeared in the walls and flooring, authorities relocated his large family of 14 to a nearby hotel.

But during the day, the Saklanis go back to their sinking home where they prepare meals and feed their cows in the courtyard, which has sunk by more than two feet. They have desperately stacked wood against the walls to prevent them from collapsing. The family of Mr. Saklani’s wife is unsure of how she can recover in a small hotel room after having surgery recently at a nearby clinic.

“Our home is slowly collapsing as we watch the gaps get wider every day. It is an awful sight “Neha Saklani, a member of the family, adds.

The problem wasn’t supposed to be a surprise.

Joshimath was formed in perilous geological conditions. The town, which is situated in an area that is prone to earthquakes and is situated on a hill’s middle slope, was constructed on the remains of a landslide that occurred more than a century ago.

For a numer of causes, land might start to sink. These include earthquakes that can result in an elevation change or the displacement of the Earth’s crust, which is the planet’s thin outer layer of rock. a dip or crater in the ground created by the collapse of something called a

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However, land can also sink as a result of human activity, such as excessive groundwater extraction and aquifer draining, which is thought to be the possible cause of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, sinking more quickly than any other city in the world, according to geologists. The US Geological Survey estimates that excessive groundwater extraction is to blame for more than 80% of land subsidence worldwide.

Joshinath’s problems appear to be primarily the result of human activity. The sand and stone are delicate because a lot of water has been pumped out of the ground over the years for cultivation. The settlement has been gradually sinking as a result of the soil dipping. The condition is concerning, according to geologist DP Dobhal.

A government assessment from 1976 warned that Joshimath was sinking and suggested that major construction be prohibited in the area. It made note of the fact that landslides were being caused by inadequate drainage systems. The report issued a strong warning: “Joshimath is not appropriate for a township.”

However, the advice went unheeded. Over the years, the area grew tremendously and became a crowded entrance for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists. The pilgrims were travelling 45 kilometres (27 miles) to the Hindu holy town of Badrinath. In the area, tourists trek, climb, and go skiing. There are now many more hotels, guest rooms, and restaurants.

Around the town, a number of hydroelectric power projects are being constructed. To increase communication and create infrastructure, roads have been built and tunnels have been bored. According to geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela in Disaster looms large above Joshimath, a 2010 report published in Current Science, the Tapovan Vishnugad hydro power project, whose tunnel crosses “completely through the geologically unstable terrain below Joshimath,” is a major concern.

The project’s drilling machinery punctured an aquifer in Joshimath in December 2009, releasing enough groundwater to support up to three million people each day (until the problem was addressed). The geologists recognised this. (In 2021, one of the two tunnels leading to the hydroelectric project was shut down due to a

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