Indian authorities have evacuated hundreds of people from their homes in the Himalayan town of Joshimath in northern Uttarakhand state after buildings in the area popular with pilgrims and tourists developed cracks due to shifting soil.
About 1,890 metres (6,200 feet) above sea level, Joshimath is a gateway to Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, key Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas, attracting tens of thousands of devotees every year.
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Officials belonging to the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and border security forces have been rushed to Joshimath, a town of approximately 25,000 people, to assess the situation and help with the evacuation.
In recent weeks, cracks have been reported in more than 600 houses in Joshimath, prompting authorities to move residents to safer locations, including hotels and guesthouses, government official Himanshu Khurana said.
“The evacuation process is under way and a team of scientists from different institutes have been trying to know the cause and how to contain the situation,” said Khurana, the district magistrate of Chamoli district, where Joshimath is located.
The town, about 490km (305 miles) northeast of federal capital New Delhi, also hosts a major Indian army base and a strategic road to the disputed border with China that has also reportedly developed wide cracks.
The cause of the apparent subsidence was unclear. Residents blame the building of a major road to improve access to religious sites and the Chinese border area, as well as the building of tunnels for a nearby hydroelectric project.
Officials have temporarily halted the construction of Char Dham all-weather road, a flagship enterprise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites, as well as a project to set up trolleys pulled by ropes to carry pilgrims and tourists in nearby Auli town and hydropower stations.
Pillars supporting a 4km (2.5-mile) cable car ropeway, one of Asia’s largest, leading to the Auli ski resort were also reportedly showing damage.
‘Our town is sinking’
Many locals, who have been forced to sleep out in the freezing cold, said they had been warning authorities for weeks and in some cases months about cracks in buildings and roads, some of which were oozing brown muddy water.
In May last year, Meera Rawat, a resident, was startled while cooking in the kitchen when she heard a gurgling sound of water flowing underneath the floor.
“That day I realised something bad was going to happen in our town of Joshimath. In September, I saw a small crack in the floor. In December, it widened, and we vacated the house,” Meera said.
Vineeta Devi said cracks began to appear in her walls last October which have now become so wide that her house is on the brink of collapse, like 25 other houses in her neighbourhood.
“What will happen to my children? How would they study now?” she said.
“We made this house with our life’s earnings, but now it’s gone,” said Sunaina, another resident.
A local official, on condition of anonymity, said several areas in Joshimath had been “demarcated unsafe” and entry restricted.
“People are deeply worried. The fear is that the town is sinking,” he said as helicopters surveyed the area.
Ranjit Sinha, a top state disaster management official, said the immediate cause of the cracks “seems to be the faulty drainage system, which has resulted in water seepage under the houses that has led to their sinking”.
Officials said the government will pay 4,000 rupees ($50) per month for six months to those rendered homeless.
The region is also prone to earthquakes and has seen a number of disasters in recent years blamed by experts on melting glaciers and unregulated construction. Some residents said they started noticing cracks in houses after severe floods hit the region in 2021.
“Between 2015 and mid-2021, at least 7,750 extreme rainfall and cloudburst instances have been noted in Uttarakhand. Such instances are detrimental to Joshimath as they may increase the number of impacted buildings, eventually exacerbating the vulnerability of the locals,” said Kavita Upadhyay, a water policy expert who is currently a research associate in the Oslo Metropolitan University’s Riverine Rights project.
Upadhyay, who is from Uttarakhand and lives in the region, said unabated large-scale infrastructure projects as well as uncontrolled tourist inflow have also contributed to land sinking.
“The slopes of Joshimath are formed from landslide debris. This means that there’s a limit to which the town can be burdened by buildings or disturbed by activities such as the construction of big infrastructure projects like dams and roads.”
Atul Sati, the convener of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti which has been protesting against government inaction to stop land subsidence, said local residents had been flagging the issue for months.
“The administration woke up from its slumber when the situation started getting grave and now they started relief efforts,” Sati said, “Our town is sinking and we need to save it.”