Joshimath Revisited: Deceit, Denial and ‘Development’

With villagers in shock and officials in denial, the future of Joshimath still hangs precariously in the balance

Joshimath Revisited: Deceit, Denial and ‘Development’

Trilochan Bhatt

Evacuate people from Joshimath. Compensate and rehabilitate them. Set up a new Joshimath. Place curbs on the number of tourists and vehicles. These are some of the ‘solutions’ we’ve heard being batted around. No surprise that inhabitants of the town, gateway to the Valley of Flowers, Badrinath Hemkund and the skiing resort of Auli next door are confused. For most, leaving Joshimath is not an option, because their livelihoods depend on the pilgrims and tourists passing through the town.

Convinced that NTPC’s TapovanVishnugad power project is the real culprit, they want the project to be abandoned. Posters reading ‘NTPC, Go Back’ can be seen in Joshimath. Why should we leave, ask some of the angry residents. It’s NTPC who should leave us alone.

The Uttarakhand government is in a state of denial. From ‘300 metres’ in December and a thousand houses being ‘unsafe’ in January, its assessment of the damage in Joshimath has grudgingly gone up to ‘30 per cent of Joshimath’. Agitations in and around Joshimath, say officials and politicians of the ruling party, are by Maoists and pro-China elements. After announcing a compensation of one and a half lakh rupees for each ‘unsafe’ house, officials seem to have reneged on the commitment, and have possibly convinced themselves that there is no imminent threat to the town or the highway.

Geologist S.P. Sati says all talk of ‘saving’ Joshimath is futile. Sati was a member of the team of scientists that inspected Joshimath last year. The team had concluded that the power project, the tunnel being drilled through the mountain, and the widening of a bypass road were responsible for the subsidence and cracks developing on walls and roads. While that was a given, he felt the focus now should be on saving the people of Joshimath.

Residents find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: to leave or not to leave. Should they invest their savings in repairs and stay on? What if disaster strikes again? How many can afford to leave their homes and livestock behind and migrate to the plains, or anywhere else, to build their lives from scratch?

Marwari is a locality where the residential colony of the Jaypee Group is located. Some distance away is Vishnuprayag. We stop at the bridge over the river Alaknanda for a cup of tea. At the tea stall, I chat with a villager from Chaain, a village on the other bank of the river. He recalls that some 22 years ago, Chaain had subsided the way Joshimath is subsiding now. I ask him if he received any compensation. He points his fingers at the sheet of tin above the tea stall. Nine such tin-sheets were received as compensation, he says, with a rueful smile.

Chaain produces abundant milk and fruit for the region. I’m told that 18 of the 65-odd families were given land in Marwari for rebuilding houses. But their fields are in the village across the river, and they have to visit daily to work them. The subsidence at the turn of the century had killed livestock and destroyed trees and crops. If Joshimath tumbles down, it will affect Marwari and then, how long before the same fate befalls Chaain? We have no answer.

At Auli, we find ropeway tower no. 1 is askew. We learn that the ground there developed cracks and destabilised the tower. The ropeway has since been shut down. A few metres from the tower, a house appears to have borne the brunt of the subsidence. The floor is a cracked heap of tiles, some twisted upwards, in some places sunk a few feet down. We spoke to Chandraballav Pandey and his brother who seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We did not speak to Chandraballav Pandey’s sister-in-law, who was sobbing uncontrollably. They had shifted from village Ganai, which was declared unsafe several years ago. Now the house they built at Auli has become unsafe. Where should they move? His two employed sons rushed back home after receiving an SOS but they too are clueless about the future. Did the affected families at Ganai receive rehabilitation? No. And now, once again, they have been left to fend for themselves.

A visit to Joshimath is incomplete without a visit to Raini, the native village of Gaura Devi, who, 50 years ago, had famously led the Chipko movement. Raini had been devastated by the flash flood and landslides of February and June 2021. Villagers from Raini were told that they would be resettled in Subhai village, five kilometre away on the road to Badrinath.

On our way to Raini, we stopped at the roadside eatery in Tapovan. On making enquiries, we were told that even Subhai village was no longer safe. At Raini, the gateway with the names of the women who had participated in the Chipko movement engraved on the columns is still intact. But the statue of Gaura Devi, which had been moved after the highway developed cracks in 2021, is missing.

The village itself looked deserted. An elderly lady told us that most villagers were away attending a puja. After asking us what we were there for, she called Karishma, the wife of the Pradhan, to come out and speak to us. Karishma confirmed that no compensation had been received by the villagers, and no information provided about the promised rehabilitation . She added that shifting to Subhai did not seem feasible any longer. As for the statue of Gaura Devi, she told us that the tehsil office had returned it, and the villagers had pooled in money to have the statue installed at a higher altitude.

Subhai is 10 kilometre uphill from Raini. At the outskirts of the village, we found a temple under construction, styled after the Narsingh temple at Joshimath. Temple construction has gathered pace in recent years in these hills. Residents of Subhai, mostly Bhotias, rarely go down. When villagers learnt that we were there to look at cracks and reported subsidence, there was a scramble to invite us to their homes. Both old houses and new, constructed barely two years ago, have developed wide cracks. These, they tell us, had first appeared after the devastation in 2021. But no official team had visited the village until mid-January, when we were there, to assess the damage.

Despite being in a hurry to return to Joshimath before night fell and it became too cold, we decided to visit Selang, the village most affected by the power project. Much of the construction, tunnels, shafts, turbines, desilting chambers etc. have been done around this village. Some are overground while others are underground.

At Selang, Bhavani Devi tells us that land acquisition for the project had started in 2018. Villagers were reluctant to part with their land but they were promised four times the market price and the additional carrot of employment and contracts. Payments were made even to those villagers who had not given their consent. But as the work on the project started and blasting began, villagers found their traditional sources of water drying up. Newly constructed houses began to shake and cracks developed on walls and ceilings. “We have been taken for a ride,” says Bhavani Devi.

Social activist Atul Sati’s words came flooding back. Accident victims, he had said, receive injuries on several parts of the body but they die largely due to head injuries. The tunnelling done for the Tapovan–Vishnugad project was the head injury for Joshimath. NTPC and the government have dismissed such comparisons and have maintained that the project is not responsible in any way for what is happening in and around Joshimath.

Alarm bells for Joshimath had been sounded 135 years ago when Edwin Atkinson in the Himalayan Gazeteer had spoken of the delicate foundation of the hills. More recently, in 1976, the then Garhwal Commissioner Satish Chandra Mishra had headed a 22-member committee that confirmed Joshimath had reached saturation point and its load-bearing capacity was doubtful. The committee had not only advised against allowing major constructions in the region but also against farming on the slopes.

Neither advisories nor warnings have come in the way of rampant construction, road widening, power plants, blasting of hills, or increase in traffic and the number of pilgrims and tourists. The fate and future of Joshimath hang in balance.

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