Sinking land forces hundreds to evacuate Indian temple city

Sinking land forces hundreds to evacuate Indian temple city

Authorities in an Indian town in the Himalayas have halted construction and started moving hundreds of people to temporary shelters after a temple collapsed and cracks appeared in over 600 homes because land had submerged, officials said on Saturday.

Residents in the city of Joshimath, Uttarakhand state, say they noticed cracks in houses, especially after the 2021 floods in the region. No injuries were reported in the temple collapse late Friday, and local residents had evacuated the area a day earlier.

Himanshu Khurana, a district administrator, said more than 60 families have been transferred to government relief camps. According to media reports, the number is likely to rise to 600 families.

Television images also showed cracks in roads impeding the movement of vehicles.

Ranjit Sinha, a senior state disaster management official, said the proximate cause of the cracks “appears to be the faulty drainage system, which has caused water to seep under the houses, leading to their demise.”

The government is paying 4,000 rupees (US$50) a month for six months to the homeless in Joshimath, a temple town of around 25,000 that sits at an elevation of 1,890 meters (6,200 feet) and falls on key Hindu pilgrims as well as trekking Circuits, said Khurana.

Tens of thousands of devotees heading to Badrinath and Him Kund Sahib, important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites, pass through Joshimath, 490 kilometers (305 miles) northeast of New Delhi. The huge flow of pilgrims and tourists meant that the city has grown exponentially over the years through the massive construction of buildings and roads that some experts have linked to land subsidence.

Construction works that have been temporarily halted include the Chardham all-weather road – a federal government flagship project to connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites, a project to install cable-drawn carts that would carry pilgrims and tourists to nearby Auli, and hydroelectric power stations.

The region witnessed a devastating downpour — extreme rain in a short period of time — that killed hundreds in 2013, as well as severe flooding in 2021. Experts say rapidly shrinking glaciers, partly due to climate change, are another reason for the region is always struck by disasters.

“Between 2015 and mid-2021, at least 7,750 cases of extreme rain and downpour were recorded in Uttarakhand. Such cases are detrimental to Joshimath as they can increase the number of affected buildings and eventually exacerbate the vulnerability of local people,” said Kavita Upadhyay, a water policy expert who is currently a research fellow at 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 flows have also contributed to land submersion.

“The slopes of Joshimath were formed from landslide debris. This means that the city has limited exposure to buildings or disruption from activities such as the construction of large infrastructure projects such as dams and roads.”

A study by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Agency warns that the construction would cause serious environmental damage by removing boulders and blasting the slope.

In May last year, while cooking in the kitchen, Meera Rawat, a resident, was startled when she heard a gurgling sound of water flowing under the floor.

“It dawned on me that day that something bad was about to happen in our town of Joshimath. In September I saw a small crack in the ground. In December it widened and we left the house,” Meera said.

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