Thursday, 9 February, 2023
E-paper

Residents evacuated from ‘sinking’ Indian holy town

Residents evacuated from ‘sinking’ Indian holy town

DEHRADUN: Authorities in an Indian Himalayan town have stopped construction activities and started moving hundreds of people to temporary shelters after a temple collapsed and cracks appeared in over 600 houses because of sinking of land, according to Indian media reports.

Residents of Joshimath town in Uttarakhand state say they started noticing cracks in houses, especially after 2021 floods in the region. No injury was reported in the temple collapse late Friday and those living nearby had vacated the area a day earlier.

Residents said a much larger number had already fled their homes and that around 600 houses and hotels were sinking in the town of around 20,000 people.

Another official said on condition of anonymity that several areas in the town 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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called a high-level meeting for later Sunday to discuss the problem after the government formed an expert panel to carry out a rapid study into the cause.

Himanshu Khurana, a district administrator, said more than 60 families have been moved to government relief camps. The number is likely to go up to 600 families, media reports said.

However, the government will pay 4,000 rupees ($50) per month for six months to those rendered homeless in Joshimath, a temple town of around 25,000 people that sits at an altitude of 1,890 meters (6,200 feet) and falls on key Hindu pilgrim as well as trekking circuits, Khurana said.

Television images also showed cracks in roads, hampering the movement of vehicles. 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."

Around 1,800 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level, Joshimath is a major gateway to a number of important religious sites in the Himalayas, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year.

Tens of thousands of devotees heading for Badrinath and Him Kund Sahib, key Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites, pass through Joshimath, 490 kilometers (305 miles) northeast of New Delhi. The huge flow of pilgrims and tourists saw the town expanding exponentially over the years with the massive construction of buildings and roadways, which some experts have linked to land subsidence.

The construction activities that were temporarily halted include the Chardham all-weather road — a flagship federal government enterprise to connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites, a project to set up trolleys pulled by ropes to carry pilgrims and tourists in nearby Auli, and hydropower stations.

The region witnessed a devastating cloudburst — an extreme rainfall in a short time — that resulted in the death of hundreds in 2013 as well as severe flooding in 2021. Experts say fast shrinking glaciers, in part due to climate change, is also another reason the region is hit by repeated disasters.

"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."

A study by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority has warned that construction by removing boulders and blasting the hillside would lead to severe environmental damage.

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.