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‘We aren’t safe here’: Why are some Himalayan towns crumbling, and can they be saved?

UTTARAKHAND, India: It was a start to the year that Anjali Rawat and her family did not expect: Having to run for their lives in the middle of the night.

Cracks were appearing in the hotel behind their home in Joshimath town. The hotel windows were falling, an employee informed Anjali’s neighbour.

“They called another neighbour and told everyone to leave their homes because the hotel was falling down,” recalled Anjali, who ran out with her husband Ajay and their son Shivansh, 10.

Months back, cracks had also formed in her home. When her family returned in the morning after they had been forced into the freezing cold, their house “looked the same, but the cracks had increased”, she described.

“Because of the impact of global warming, summer is extending, and winter is shrinking. Snowfall is less, glacial melt is more,” said glaciologist D P Dobhal, a former senior scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Uttarakhand’s capital, Dehradun.

Also, when drains are not lined, used water from households and businesses percolates into fissures in the ground. This saturates the soil and makes it “very, very unstable”, said Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology scientist Swapnamita C Vaideswaran.

“There are hotels, (and) all that water is going into the soil. Where’s that water going? How many (sewage) treatment plants are connected?”

Joshimath, which sits on a layer of sand and rock from an ancient landslide, is not the only Himalayan town or hill station in a precarious state.

About 270 kilometres south, the town of Nainital is similarly vulnerable. Built around a picturesque lake from which a stream called the Balia Nala flows, Nainital has experienced landslides since 1867, including one last year.

“During the last landslide, they shifted 50 families to a school,” said municipal supervisor Rajesh Kshetarya.

Residents such as Rajesh are filled with worry during the rainy season each year. It can rain continuously for two days, he said.

After previous landslides, his family had moved uphill. But cracks appeared in his new home. “We aren’t safe here,” he said. “This area will be in danger if an earthquake strikes. We can’t trust this place where we’re sitting now.”

“We had apprehensions that this would happen if the project continued, and our apprehensions turned true,” said Atul Sati, convener of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Struggle to Save Joshimath Committee), citing several of the project’s mishaps over the years.

“Their tunnel boring machine got stuck, and there was water leakage, and the villages near their projects started developing cracks.”

But not all scientists hold the same view, and the plant’s developer — state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) — has denied responsibility. It said the tunnel in question is a kilometre away from Joshimath town and 1.1 km below ground level.

Swapnamita agrees. “I think the Joshimath problem is a surficial problem. It isn’t linked with something happening at such depth,” she said.

Another project halted was the Helang-Marwari bypass road, but it resumed in June after a five-month hiatus.

A “proper investigation” conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee concluded that the bypass is “on solid rock”, cited Uttarakhand disaster management secretary Ranjit Kumar Sinha. “It isn’t going to affect the Joshimath area and won’t aggravate the problem.”

The road will shorten the distance to Badrinath and is part of a project to link the four Hindu shrines known as Char Dham.

Given this collaboration between the state government and the scientific community, Swapnamita said: “If this goes on, … we can have a better tomorrow.”

But are all these measures enough for residents of the Himalayan towns?

WATCH: The full episode — After Joshimath’s collapse, what will happen to the people of India’s mountain towns? (46:31)

The future of Joshimath’s people is “in ruins”, declared post office worker and social activist Rekha Devi.

She used to rent out a few rooms to service her home loan, but after Joshimath’s sinking, all the tenants left. Rekha returned to her cracked home as she could not afford to rent a flat.

“How are we supposed to pay off the loan? This is our biggest issue right now,” said the 42-year-old. “Some people are staying in hotels, but for how long? … Everyone’s wondering where they’ll go.”

Anjali’s family lived in a municipal building for six months before they had to vacate. They now live in a rented house in Gopeshwar town, about 60 km from Joshimath.

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