Amid evacuations and demolitions in sinking Joshimath, several residents and activists are calling for the National Thermal Power Corporation to shut down its activities in the region, alleging that one of its projects contributed to subsidence in the area.
From the numerous small and big shops in the main markets to the residential properties, vehicles, and billboards, posters with the slogan 'NTPC go back' have come up around the town in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district over the past few days.
Local people allege that the digging of a 12-km tunnel for the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project exacerbated the subsidence in the area.
"We have always felt that NTPC, which has been working here, is responsible for the damage to a large extent. They are building a tunnel, their machine is stuck," said Sooraj Kapruwan, a hotel management graduate and local businessman.
"The work that should have been completed by 2012 started that year and is still going on. In between this work, we have had many issues earlier as well in many parts of the town," Kapruwan told PTI.
His views were echoed by many in Kuprawan's subsidence-hit neighbourhood of Manohar Van, one of the nine wards of Joshimath.
The Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (JBSS) on Monday demanded that the 520 MegaWatt Tapovan-Vishnugad project developed by the NTPC be scrapped.
Activist Atul Sati believes that while there may be many reasons for making the region fragile, the current subsidence in Joshimath is to be blamed on the blasting caused for the project.
"The main reason behind this situation where the existence of Joshimath is in question is the Tapovan-Vishnugad project and the NTPC company behind this project," Sati, president of the JBSS, told PTI.
"The L&T company was initially building the tunnel for NTPC but had to quit as it was not satisfied with the way the corporation worked. The central government should take the matter in its hands and declare Joshimath's subsidence a national disaster," he added.
The NTPC, however, has denied any link between the project and Joshimath's subsidence, saying the tunnel connected to the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project is over a kilometre under the ground and not below Joshimath.
'The tunnel built by NTPC does not pass under Joshimath town. This tunnel is dug by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) and no blasting is being carried out currently,' it said in a statement last week.
Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana said work on the NTPC plant has now stopped, and the central and the state governments have taken cognizance of the allegations of damage due to this plant.
"Many government agencies and institutes such as the Geographical Survey of India (GSI), National Geophysical Research Institute, National Institute of Hydrology, and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology are studying this issue, and we are hopeful that they will come up with an expert opinion on this. We will take further action based on the report of the experts," Khurana told PTI.
"This is a dynamic situation and experts need to examine this independently. We want to know the reasons so that further action can be taken," he added.
Experts are also of the opinion that the power project is a cause for concern.
According to a 2010 paper compiled by geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela named 'Disaster looms large over Joshimath', the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project is a major concern and its tunnel traverses 'all through the geologically fragile area below Joshimath'.
"There have been previous reports that tunnelling related to the Tapovan-Vishnugad project had pierced a large aquifer (underground water storage) in 2009 that led to a discharge of 60-70 million litres of water per day," said Kusala Rajendran, seismologist and professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
"Imagine the surface effect of such an instability. It can lead to readjustments in the subsurface, and based on the nature of the rocks, the ground might subside," Rajendran told PTI over the phone.
The JSS also held a day-long protest near the office of the Sub Treasury Joshimath on Monday where many people joined local residents to voice their demands.
They have been demanding proper compensation and rehabilitation for the affected while recognising the 'real magnitude of the problem'.
The protest site reverberated with the slogan 'NTPC go back', with environmental activists and leaders of many political parties joining them throughout the day.
Social activist and Joshimath resident Deveshri Saha, who participated in the protest, said the situation was alarming but the government was not taking it seriously.
"We demand that the government should declare it as a national disaster because that is what it is. We want land for people who have lost their homes, and their rehabilitation should take into consideration the roots, religion, and culture of the people," Saha said.
Sati said the Joshimath subsidence is a disaster in the making.
"The officials say we are planning to evacuate 40 per cent of the people in case the situation worsens. But we are demanding that the entire town be shifted to some other place," he added.