Havoc in the hills: The eerie silence in Joshimath

Amid rumours that the Indian Army base at this forward post will move, lives and livelihoods are badly hit

Havoc in the hills: The eerie silence in Joshimath

Trilochan Bhatt

After weeks of protests, official meetings, and YouTubers and TV crews barging into homes to take photographs of cracks in the walls and collapsing floors and ceilings and to interview people, it is now all quiet in Joshimath.

The government officials, scientists and media personnel have left as have the social workers from NGOs who visited the town to help victims. The protesters have fallen silent. Joshimath is off the headlines and it appears the pilgrim town has been abandoned to its sorry fate.

Visitors looking to capture the dramatic collapse of houses, possibly of the kind seen recently in footage emerging from Turkey and Syria after the recent earthquake there, must have been disappointed—Joshimath is perhaps sinking too slowly to make a dramatic Reel or a good WhatsApp forward.

How slowly can be gauged from the fact that residents started opposing NTPC’s Tapovan–Vishnugad power plant way back in 2003. Representations were sent to the President and the Prime Minister, among others, expressing fears about what the project might trigger in Joshimath. How long before the next dramatic moment captures the attention of people outside?

In the midst of all the uncertainty over the safety of structures—besides lives and livelihoods—are swirling rumours that the Army is planning to shift the brigade stationed at Joshimath to a safer location. This has fuelled a fresh panic attack. The presence of the Army is reassuring for residents; if the brigade moves, it will certainly have a demoralising effect on the local population.

Joshimath claims a long history. The Kalpavriksha, under which Shankaracharya is said to have meditated in the 8th century, is said to be over 2,000 years old. There were landslides and subsidence in Joshimath around the year 1,000 AD and, thereafter, in the mid-1970s. Few are willing to hazard a guess on when the next disaster might hit. But the ‘development’ frenzy in all the Hindu pilgrim centres in the Himalayas, including Joshimath, certainly tempts fate.

Mahendra Bhatt, president of the BJP state unit, has a well-deserved reputation for being a loose cannon. A former legislator, his statements have regularly embarrassed the party, but in naming him president of the state unit, even though he lost his seat in the assembly, the party seems to have rewarded his loyalty.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he made headlines for suggesting in all seriousness that people have two teaspoonfuls of cow urine every morning to protect themselves from the virus. He also prescribed that people mix ashes of cow-dung cakes in water for their bath. The prescription invited widespread ridicule and made him a butt of jokes.

He found himself at the receiving end of ridicule again by claiming that protesters at Joshimath demanding proper compensation and rehabilitation and asking NTPC to abandon its power project were Maoists and pro-China elements. The statement invited widespread condemnation. His effigy was set on fire in Joshimath and irate people demanded he should tender an apology.

Atul Sati, one of the activists leading protests in Joshimath, believes Bhatt had planned to make the statement on 27 January when protesters had announced a ‘gherao’ of the NTPC project office. Sati claims Bhatt’s plans were to engineer stone-pelting and disrupt the protest, put the blame on protesters and provoke the police to cane people and arrest them. Following the chaos he anticipated would follow, Bhatt would make the accusing statement and hog the headlines.

But the plan leaked out and late on 26th evening protesters learnt of it, confides Prakash Negi. Aghast, protesters decided not to gherao the NTPC office the next day but confine the protest to a procession. It ended peacefully and the plan to disrupt the gherao and defame protesters was foiled. But Bhatt, presumably not present in Joshimath, went ahead and released his statement nevertheless, recalls Mahadeep Panwar. A sheepish Bhatt, when he realised that there were no disturbances and the protest had passed off peacefully, sought to make amends and made it worse for himself.

The hordes of tourists seen at Auli and Joshimath during these winter months are missing this time. The winter carnival at Auli, which is normally covered with snow at this time of the year, was called off, keeping skiing enthusiasts away. Even others who camped at Joshimath just to enjoy the weather have given the place a miss. Even the more adventurous ‘disaster tourists’ and photographers who had thronged the place last month, are gone. How long could they have waited to see Joshimath sink?

The homestay I prefer to stay in was full at this time last year. It did not have a single room to spare. This time I seemed to be the only guest. A glum Shivram Singh confirmed that tourism trade had taken a major hit. Not just hotels, homestays and restaurants but grocers and those who furnish camping tents, skiing gear, helmets and boots on rent have all been hit.

This is also the reason why residents are not willing to move. Settling elsewhere is not an option because the business and trading opportunities available in Joshimath may not be there. This is also the reason why residents would like the NTPC to abandon the power project and leave. Without the tourists and the trekkers who venture out to the Valley of Flowers from Joshimath, they will not be able to sustain themselves, they say.

In February, 2021 a flash flood caused by a breach in a glacier destroyed the settlement and the NTC power house at Raini. Several hundred workers were trapped in an under-construction tunnel and over 200 people were said to have died. Four months later in June, 2021 landslides had destroyed a substantial part of the road used to supply ration to the troops on the Chinese border.

Two years later this time, 20 of the dead bodies from Raini are yet to be retrieved, I am informed. The house of Durga Prasad Saklani in village Suneel was damaged extensively in 2021. All the rooms in the house, where he and his brother live with their family, have become unsafe. But although he has been seeking compensation and rehabilitation since October, 2021, officials are not receptive, he says. ‘We are not responsible for the poor construction and foundation of your house’, they tell him.

This time when roads and houses began to sink, the SDM visited his house for the first time. The family was given a room in a different place. Family members shift there for the night and return in the morning. But every day either police or some official, says Saklani, asks him to vacate the house.

“How do I shift the entire family and belongings from the house to a single room? My wife has just returned after a major surgery in Dehradun. We have 14 milch animals; where do I keep them,” he wails.

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