Last Monday, local officials officially deemed Joshimath catastrophe-prone and contacted technical and disaster management teams to inspect the growing devastation as the holy Himalayan town sinks into the earth.
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A loud grinding sound awakened awoke thirty priests. The ceiling of their two-story ashram then started to leak small stones.
“It sounded like sandpaper rubbing against each other,” said Baba Santosh, a Hindu priest in his 50s with the snow-capped Himalayas surrounding him. “Then the sound got louder.”
In Joshimath, a small Himalayan village in India near the Chinese border, Santosh’s ashram began to tremble on January 2. Its walls developed large fractures quickly, and the wooden front door twisted off its hinges. Then the door suddenly burst open, sending the priests fleeing in terror.
“In one room, the floor just caved in and I could hear ground water gurgling underneath,” Santosh said.
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When the rumbling stopped, the priests were compelled to spend the night outside in the bitter cold because their house had turned into a mound of gravel. They discovered the entire community of more than 20,000 people was out on the streets the following morning.
“Earthquakes and cracks on walls are normal in the mountains. We’re used to it,” said Santosh, as dark clouds rumbled in the sky above. Behind him, a small temple is broken to pieces. “But I’ve never seen anything like this before. This isn’t normal. It’s the apocalypse.”
Technically, the town of Joshimath, which is located 6,000 feet above sea level, is sinking.
Joshimath is a well-known holy town that is encircled by glaciers. For decades, experts have warned that Joshimath is in a high-risk seismic zone and prone to land subsidence—when the earth moves vertically downwards—but construction has been relentless to accommodate pilgrims, ski tourists, and hydropower plants. In 2019, the town received over 500,000 tourists.
Joshimath is not alone. It is one of more than 500 towns and villages in the state of Uttarakhand that are in the zone of subsidence. However, the town has come to represent a more fundamental conflict in India, where power and tourism revenues are valued more highly than people and the environment.
52 hydropower stations have currently been built or are being built in the Chamoli district, where Joshimath is situated. There are 900 glaciers in Joshmiath’s state of Uttarakhand, which total 2,857 square kilometres. Warming temperatures are causing the glaciers to retreat at an alarming rate, and the government is keeping a watch on them to provide India’s expanding electrical needs. The development of Uttarakhand is one of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top priorities, he remarked during a rally last year.
Joshimath is not alone. It’s among over 500 towns and villages in Uttarakhand state that’s in the land subsidence zone.
Last Monday, local officials officially deemed Joshimath catastrophe-prone and contacted technical and disaster management teams to inspect the growing devastation. Over 3,000 inhabitants went into aid camps after many locals packed up their possessions.
The state government halted building to save the area from sinking any further, but residents VICE World News spoke to said they can still hear explosions during the night. A hydroelectric project drilling operation was spotted by the TV news station NDTV last week around 2AM nearby Joshimath. Additionally, the state administration is still planning to hold religious and sporting activities that will draw tens of thousands of visitors.
“We are going to have the National Winter Games in [Joshimath’s neighbouring town] Auli in February,” Pushkar Singh Dhami, the state’s chief minister, told reporters in Joshimath last week. He added that a popular religious procession that hits Joshimath will also go forward. This ancient town is a key part of the country’s lucrative Hindu tourism circuit called Char Dham Yatra (Hindi for ‘Four Abodes Pilgrimage’).
The state’s head may think otherwise, but there is panic on the ground. The old Hindu prophecy that Joshimath will one day be utterly inaccessible is a common topic of conversation among the people.
“Man has messed with nature too much,” said Santosh, the priest. “One of these days, the whole town is going to wash away down this slope like a big glacial flood.”
“Building anything on this land is like making a house on a mound of sand.”
Joshimath saw “rapid subsistence” of 5 cm in 12 days starting on December 27 according to a preliminary assessment that garnered national attention over the weekend and quickly went viral. The research was published by the reputed Indian Space Research Organisation. The government then banned it for inciting “panic.”
Some of Joshimath’s elderly residents are hesitant to leave despite the tragedy that still occurs there and the constant threat of danger.
The priest, Santosh, claimed that he was the only person left in his part of the town. “I will jump off my roof if the cracks come for me. I’m not leaving,” he said.
A 30-year-old lady named Roshni Devi stated she won’t leave until the authorities forcibly remove her from her home. There are simply too many memories and possessions to be left behind, she added.
The geologist Sati, however, asserted that Joshimath cannot be saved at this stage. Instead, the government should put a high priority on mass evacuations and mass resettlement.
“Joshimath can collapse anytime now,” he said. “This town should become a lesson for hundreds of others that are sitting on a time bomb. It can go off anytime.”