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Rediff.com  » News » 'Fear continues across Joshimath'

'Fear continues across Joshimath'

By RASHME SEHGAL
February 06, 2023 11:38 IST
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'Cracks continue to appear in more and more houses.'
'We believe the government is not going to tell us the truth.'

IMAGE: A view of snow covered areas in Joshimath. Photograph: ANI Photo

The Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti has been in the forefront of warning the authorities about the subsidence of Joshimath.

Their warnings go back two decades when they first learnt about the National Thermal Power Corporation's plans to set up a power project close to their town.

Sadly, Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti Secretary Kamal Rasturi emphasises how successive warnings have gone unheeded.

"We, the people of Joshimath are the affected parties and we need to be informed about what the situation is on the ground. But there is no transparency in the way this government operates," Raturi tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal.

 

What is the situation in Joshimath at present?

The situation has not changed from last December. An atmosphere of chaos and fear continues across the town. People here remain traumatised.

Heavy snowfall in the last few days has only worsened their apprehensions.

It is very cold with temperatures well below freezing point at night.

There are 200 families who are living in shelters arranged for by the government.

Many have shifted to rented accommodation while there are others who have moved into hotels.

Cracks continue to appear in more and more houses, but the government has yet to arrive at a proper compensation amount.

The government claimed it is building prefabricated structures for the citizens of Joshimath. How many have shifted to these structures?

Work on these prefabricated structures has been started, but they have yet to be completed. In the first phase, the government is building fifteen such structures.

What about people's livelihoods? How are people making ends meet?

The winter season was a time when tourists came here in large numbers and the local people could earn money.

This has not happened this year so although people have opened their shops, their earnings have been badly hit.

The ITBP, the army jawans (part of the army brigade stationed here) and government employees who lived here and who used all the local facilities have left, so obviously earnings have been affected.

IMAGE: Cracks are seen on the walls of a house in Joshimath. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Scientists from eight different organisations had come to Joshimath to study the subsidence that had taken place.

A multi institutional team of experts from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, the Central Building Research Institute, the National Geophysical Research Institute, the Central Ground Water Board, the Geological Survey of India and the National Institute of Hydrology did come and stay in Joshimath.

But they did not interact with the local people in our town. They have since left and I understand they have submitted their preliminary report to the government. But this has not been placed in the public domain.

IMAGE: A prefabricated shelter being constructed for rehabilitation of the affected families. Photograph: ANI Photo

ISRO scientists who studied the subsidence in Joshimath put up satellite images on its Web site that showed that Joshimath had sunk up to 9 cm between April and November 2022 and between December 27 and January 4, it sank even more rapidly by as much as 5.4 cm.
When the public learnt about these levels of sinking, what was their reaction?

The ISRO report only served to confirm the worst fears of the public.

They realised that what they had been warning the state and central government for the last three years was not some figment of their imagination but was based on hard reality on the ground.

The initial findings of the multi-institutional team of experts should have been placed in the open domain.

After all, we the people of Joshimath are the affected parties and we need to be informed about what the situation is on the ground.

But there is no transparency in the way this government operates.

To add insult to injury, Uttarakhand BJP president Mahendra Bhatt said at a public meeting that the agitation in our town is being led by Maoists who are supporters of China and who do not want the Char Dham yatra to operate smoothly.

People here have lost their homes and hearth. They are not being offered adequate compensation and because they are agitating for their rights, the state BJP leadership accuses JBSS leaders of being anti-development and against the setting up of big projects.

Bhatt's statements have infuriated the public and now even more people have joined the protests.

Presently, we are sitting on a dharna every day outside the tehsil office.

As it is, both the central and state government have given NTPC a clean chit, having said that the construction of the tunnel has nothing to do with the subsidence of the town.

They are likely to do the same with the Helang Marwari bypass at the base of Joshimath town.

This is part of the Char Dham Yojana. The state government has asked IIT-Roorkee to study whether building the Helang Marwari bypass was one of the causes which accelerated the sinking of our town.

We founded the JBSS in 2003 to register our protest against the dangers that large hydro projects were posing in our region.

Atul Sati, I and three villages of Reini village even filed a PIL in the Nainital high court demanding the NTPC and Rishiganga hydro projects be cancelled as this would harm the ecology of this region.

Imagine to our consternation, our PIL was dismissed in 2021 and each of the petitioners was made to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 because the court was not happy that we had been described as 'social activists'.

IMAGE: Locals protest against NTPC and the state government over cracks widening due to land subsidence in Joshimath. Photograph: ANI Photo

But the problem of subsidence is no longer restricted to Joshimath.
It has spread to tourist destinations like Nainital and Mussorie.

The JBSS has been warning the central government and the state authorities about our town sinking from as far back as 2003.

It is all there on the record. There are so many hydro projects coming up in this region.

Some of these fall within the Nanda Devi national park or its buffer zone.

Most of these projects have involved blasting, deforestation and dumping of muck in our rivers.

We have provided evidence of all this. Cracks have appeared in the homes of several houses located close to the where this blasting is being done.

In the case of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydro project, initially, multi-national companies such as Larsen & Toubro and Alpine Mayreder Bau Gmbh were digging the main tunnel when their tunnel boring machine got stuck.

It got stuck again in 2014 and these companies pulled out of this project citing safety concerns.

After studying the DPR (detailed project report) prepared by the NTPC, members of the JBSS had pointed out shortcomings in their project.

They could argue that ours was not a scientific point of view, but the Geological Survey of India had also warned the NTPC of these shortcomings which went unheeded.

IMAGE: Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Harish Rawat and others hold placards over the issue of land subsidence in Joshimath during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Jammu. Photograph: ANI Photo

I understand the JBSS has taken water from the tunnel and sent it for testing to a laboratory outside Uttarakhand.
What did you hope to achieve from this exercise and have the findings come out?

We believe the government is not going to tell us the truth. The Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority insists that lack of sewerage system and drainage in the town of Joshimath are responsible for the sinking of the city.

But all this blasting and creating of tunnels has dried up the groundwater leading to this subsidence.

We believe that the water that has surfaced in the cracks in Joshimath is water that is full of cement and debris caused by the tunnel excavation work being done in the Tapovan Vishnugad hydro electric power project.

Even the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) has had to concede that NTPC did not conduct geological surveys of the town.

We expect the results from the laboratory to reach us soon.

I would like to reiterate that the government has come up with no concrete plan to rehabilitate the people of our town.

Nearby Raini village and Selang village also faced problems of subsidence forcing the villagers to move out. They too were not rehabilitated in a proper manner.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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