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Six months on, fresh sinkhole revives fears of subsidence in Joshimath

Dehradun/New Delhi: A sinkhole, more than six-feet wide, emerged near the Saklani home in Joshimath last week. And the crippling anxiety of ‘what next’ gripped the residents of the ecologically fragile Himalayan town once again.

It was almost six months to the day land subsidence around Joshimath on January 2-3 led to hundreds of residents fleeing their homes, which had developed cracks, and taking refuge in hotels, rest houses and at houses of relatives and friends.

That was the dead of winter, this is the monsoon, and nothing seems to have changed, said Anju Saklani. As the rain fell steadily, land near their home caved in with water seeping into their home.

“We have since filled the sinkhole with debris and stones,” Anju told PTI over the phone.
But that is a band-aid solution at best, added Atul Sati, environmental activist and coordinator of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (JBSS).

The Saklanis were the first to reports cracks in their home, as early as September 2021. That they are also the first to report a sinkhole has led to trepidation on what lies ahead for their town, a gateway to the ski resort of Auli, several mountain climbing expeditions as well as the pilgrim centres of Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, and the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO world heritage site.

“The condition of the affected people has not changed much over the past six months with cracks in their houses only widening further,” Sati told PTI.

The sinkhole near the Saklani’s house in Sunil ward is not the only one, he said, expressing his grave concern over the situation.

Several sinkholes have been reported in Joshimath in the past and, with the onset of the monsoon season, there is fear of more such incidents occurring in the future. Officials say several programmes have been started by the government to save Joshimath since the land subsidence event. "The carrying capacity of Joshimath is being assessed. A plan is also ready to streamline the drainage system there. Every aspect of the problem has been looked into and experts are devising ways to stabilise the town,” Piyush Rautela, executive director of the Uttarakhand Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre, told PTI. Shedding light on the geological factors contributing to the sinkhole formation in Joshimath, geologist Y P Sundriyal said the presence of loose and soft rocks beneath the surface makes the area more susceptible to erosion caused by water movement. Over time, this erosion weakens the ground, resulting in depressions such as sinkholes.

"The water moving underground erodes loose soft rocks under the surface and creates a depression in the form of a sinkhole," explained Sundriyal, adjunct professor at Srinagar's Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University.

“In the event of excessive rainfall, it would aggravate the problem there. Both sinkholes and cracks can widen. Let us wait and watch,” he told PTI.

Exacerbating the crisis is the perilous situation of the residents, some, like the Saklanis, who have been forced to move back to their still unsafe homes.

According to Sati, only 30 per cent of the affected population has received any compensation, and even that has been inadequate.

The JBSS, he said, recently met the authorities over possible threats to the town during the monsoon and presented 11 demands. It also staged a sit-in on Monday to draw the attention of the government.

He said most of the affected population has moved back from shelter homes to their houses, many of which were declared unfit for habitation back in January.

Anju Saklani's brother-in-law Durga Prasad Saklani, for instance, said they were compelled to move back to their damaged home after spending several months in a government-arranged hotel.

"Despite receiving some compensation, we find it insufficient to relocate to some other place due to high land prices in the area. Some people did benefit from the compensation package, but not people like us," Durga Prasad, who works with the Auli ropeway project that was shut since the land subsidence event on January 3, told PTI.

His 19-year-old daughter Neha said they received compensation of just Rs 12 lakh, far short of the approximately Rs 30 lakh required to purchase a similar plot of land.

According to Rautela, however, 1,600 of the 2,600 houses in Joshimath are fine.
“There are about 900 houses which can be repaired and made livable using retrofitting technology. Only 500 houses have become completely unsafe after the disaster,” he added.

In addition to reckless construction, experts blamed the tunnel for a hydroelectric power project around the town for the January 3 subsidence - and the fear that another one might be around the corner.

In January, 868 structures in Joshimath developed cracks and 181 of them were officially deemed unsafe. As a result, several hundred residents were evacuated at the time.

“The dire circumstances faced by the residents underscore the urgent need for comprehensive support, including proper rehabilitation measures and adequate compensation, to alleviate their ongoing struggles,” Sati said.

“As the residents of Joshimath continue to grapple with the aftermath of the land subsidence event, it is essential for the authorities to prioritize their well-being and address their concerns promptly.” He said six months have passed since the subsidence event but authorities have still not disclosed the fact finding report. A team of experts from seven organisations had been constituted in January to study and give recommendations on the situation in Joshimath.

Chamoli's District Disaster Management Officer N K Joshi said a proper relief package has been given by the government to the affected people. “Under the special rehabilitation policy made for Joshimath, an amount of Rs 26 crore has been given as compensation so far to 118 families in lieu of damaged houses. Even before the implementation of this rehabilitation policy, the assistance of Rs 1 lakh as immediate relief was provided to 324 affected families,” Joshi told PTI.

The government's relief camps, he said, in which 259 people from 64 families have been staying are still being run; 736 people from 232 families are living on rent and in the houses of relatives. A town of over 20,000 people in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, Joshimath stands at a height of over 6,150 feet.

Uttarakhand has a long history of natural disasters. Earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, and flash floods have claimed thousands of lives in the past.

Over 1,000 people were killed in such extreme weather events between 2010 and 2020. Many villages in the state have been marked unsafe for living. (PTI)

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